FCC enters another fire storm, this time over broadband definitions

Following the assault on net neutrality by the new-look FCC, under the chairmanship of Ajit Pai, a new controversy is looming in the US (and Pai reportedly had to cancel his visit to the Consumer Electronics Show because of death threats). The latest row is over plans to change the definition of broadband which was established under Pai’s predecessor, Tom Wheeler.

While Wheeler’s FCC set that definition at 25Mbps downstream and 4Mbps upstream, Pai wants to reduce the downlink minimum to 10Mbps, and just 1Mbps on the uplink. That would make it more practical for rural and remote areas to be ‘broadband connected’ using cellular networks (and not even, necessarily, the unproven and expensive option of 5G in millimeter wave spectrum, which AT&T and Verizon are testing for fixed wireless access services). It would also lighten the burden on the FCC and the operators to take difficult decisions to get fast wireline connectivity to every part of the USA.

Some argue that a 10Mbps connection enabled by fixed LTE or 5G is better than nothing, in areas where no operator will be able to invest in the cost of wireline roll-out within substantial subsidies. But many rural broadband advocates see this as the latest example of administrations and operators ignoring the requirements of country dwellers, and so perpetuating the digital divide and rural poverty.

A grassroots campaign, the Mobile Only Challenge, is seeking to oppose the FCC’s latest proposal and bring it to wide attention. It is asking people to use their mobile devices only for an entire day of internet access in January and then share the experience on social media, using the hashtag #MobileOnly, in advance of an FCC meeting on February 3. The aim is to demonstrate that the mobile only approach results in inferior quality of service.

Analysts and campaigners that the FCC is looking to eliminate the digital divide, and make its broadband progress look far better, by changing the definitions so that far more homes already have acceptable broadband speeds via their cellular connections. But even if the speed of cellular is high enough, it is usually more expensive than fixed wireline, as well as less consistent, and harder to measure accurately.

“Rural, minority, and lower income communities, which often face the most challenges relating to broadband, would be harmed the most from an FCC determination about the availability of broadband that is at odds with reality,” said John Bergmayer, senior counsel at advocacy group Public Knowledge, in a statement last autumn. “In a world where communities are crying out for help to participate in modern society, an agency tasked with acting in the public interest should not take a step backward that will make it more difficult for communities with deficient broadband to get the help they need.”