This Industry Viewpoint was contributed by Alan Levy, CEO of Skywire Networks
Net neutrality may be dead, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the FCC from continuing to relax the regulatory standards to which broadband providers are held. The FCC is now proposing that access to mobile broadband via a smartphone will be treated the same as wireline broadband. This subtle re-categorization will reduce the standard for what qualifies as high speed broadband. It’s remarkable that the FCC is taking positions to reduce broadband standards when the United States only ranks 20th in the world in terms of broadband speed.
The current policy standard, put in place in 2015, says that all Americans must have access to home broadband with speeds of at least 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload, as well as access to mobile broadband. However, the new guidelines proposed by the FCC would count access to mobile broadband as high-speed internet, while simultaneously reducing the speed requirement to 10Mbps down and 1Mpbs up.
The FCC’s decision to reduce the minimum defined speed for broadband will do little to incentivize the building of broadband networks in the communities most in need of them. Not only that, it will also punish those who rely on the internet to pay their bills, get access to vital information, and find employment. At a time when the US should be making significantly more investments in broadband infrastructure, this policy change by the FCC defies logic.
Why would the FCC make such a move? Paradoxically, it allows them to claim that more people have access to high speed broadband - a claim that would technically be true, but is also misleading. Yes, more people would have high speed broadband, under the narrow definition proposed by the FCC, but their internet wouldn’t be any faster than it was before; in fact, the opposite is likely to happen. After all, if broadband providers are no longer being held to a higher standard, then they have no incentive to continue offering the old speeds unless they are able to make more money from it.
Another reason for this decision is the fact that more people are “cutting the cord” and relying solely on smartphone data. However, as some have pointed out, even mobile plans that claim to offer unlimited data come with significant caveats: most notably, the fact that carriers reserve the right to slow down data speeds if users go above a certain data threshold. If more people begin relying on mobile carriers to provide the internet access that they can’t get at home, that would put more pressure on the carriers, which might then cause them to start charging more for their mobile data plans and reducing their data speeds.
This policy change by the FCC is clearly another accomodation to the large nationwide telecom operators and cable companies. In NYC, for example, as it relates to commercial broadband, there is very little fiber in the boroughs of NYC. There is an abundance of fiber in midtown and downtown; however, there are tens of thousands of buildings and hundreds of thousands of small businesses in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx which still rely on legacy copper networks or poor asymmetric cable offerings.
Furthermore, there are more than 100,000 T-1’s in NYC alone, low speed circuits which can’t support today’s modern data applications like ethernet, hosted voice, cloud and managed services, etc. The legacy T-1’s (which are 1.54Mbps), eventually must be migrated to Ethernet or will simply churn out. It’s time for network builders to scale the capabilities of their broadband networks by offering more speed, more choice and better options for consumers and businesses.
As writer Joel Hruska notes, “Simultaneously implementing the 10/1 standard for wireless and allowing wireless or fixed service to qualify as broadband will reduce the number of Americans who officially lack access to affordable service and or/acceptable performance without actually doing anything to improve the problem.” It would also do little to address the issue of poor broadband and mobile service in rural areas. All in all, the new standards will be very good for carriers and broadband providers - but not so good for the people who rely on the internet to do their jobs, pay their bills, and live their lives.