Under chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC has had a lot of stupid initiatives that would only serve the interests of telecoms. Ranking high on the list was a plan to redefine speed requirements for fixed broadband to include slower mobile connections. As of Thursday, that plan appears to be dead. But never say never.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to release an assessment each year on whether or not broadband internet is being deployed by the telecoms it licenses in a reasonable and timely fashion. In a fact sheet on its 2018 draft of that report released yesterday, the agency announced that it would not be changing the broadband standards that were set in 2016.
Currently, the broadband benchmark is a 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. Additionally, companies are required to expand mobile access. The FCC is required to step in and force a company to speed up its progress if it determines that these advanced telecommunications technologies aren't reaching the public fast enough. Last year, Ajit Pai proposed a way to make this benchmark easier for companies to hit while making his agency's statistics look better. His idea: lower the standards. The scheme would have allowed mobile connections with download speeds as low as 10 Mbps to count as acceptable broadband service. So if a person lived near an LTE tower, but only had access to an antiquated fixed connection at home, they'd be considered adequately covered.
The fact sheet recognises that was an unacceptable standard because mobile and fixed connections are quite different. From the report:
Mobile services are not full substitutes for fixed services - there are salient differences between the two technologies. Both fixed and mobile services can enable access to information, entertainment, and employment options, but there are salient differences between the two. Beyond the most obvious distinction that mobile services permit user mobility, there are clear variations in consumer preferences and demands for fixed and mobile services.
To put that another way, mobile service can be expensive, slow, and usually includes prohibitive data caps. Not only would such a move lower expectations on the progress of telecommunications, it would severely harm the people in low-income, rural areas that still aren't being served.
Still, commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon L Clyburn, the only two members of the committee that voted against repealing net neutrality protections last year, said that the draft report raised concerns. Both took issue with the full report's conclusion that "broadband is being reasonably and timely deployed." Rosenworcel pointed out that "over 24 million Americans still lack access," saying, "This is especially tragic when, according to the Senate Joint Economic Committee, there are 12 million kids that are caught in the Homework Gap because they lack Internet service at home."
Clyburn released an official statement saying that the full report only reaches that conclusion "by repeating the majority's tired and debunked claims that broadband investment and innovation screeched to a halt in 2015." Clyburn was referencing Pai's argument that net neutrality protections caused telecoms to stop investing in their business, an absurd notion without factual basis.
The full report hasn't been released yet, and maybe it will change from the current draft, but, for now, it seems that the FCC is lowering the standards of how it assesses progress, it just isn't fudging specific numbers when it gives its approval.
Still, the decision to walk back on the redefinition of broadband is encouraging. This FCC has put forward many initiatives that harm low-income and rural people. When US President Trump started making rural broadband a talking point and signed some meaningless executive orders earlier this month, the hypocrisy was laughable. But maybe the realisation that the administration is harming its base is beginning to take hold. Earlier this week, Pai announced that he had "shared with his fellow commissioners an order to promote more high-speed broadband deployment in rural areas," and, if adopted, it would "provide over $US500 ($625) million in additional funding for cooperatives and small rural carriers." Gizmodo has asked FCC for more details on what this order includes and what under sort of timeframe for it is being considered. We'll update this post when we receive a reply.