from the 640K-is-more-memory-than-anyone-will-ever-need dept
One of the hallmarks of Tom Wheeler's FCC was a renewed focus on competition at higher broadband speeds. It's one of the reasons the last FCC bumped the standard definition of broadband from a measly 4 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up, to 25 Mbps down, and 3 Mbps up. That higher benchmark allowed the FCC to point out that roughly two-thirds of American homes lack access to more than one ISP at 25 Mbps or better, highlighting a growing cable monopoly over broadband as DSL providers like AT&T and Verizon shift their attention toward giant media acquisitions and away from residential broadband.
Needless to say, large broadband providers (and the politicians paid to love them) quickly threw a hissy fit, insisting that nobody really needs that much bandwidth. This idea that you don't really need faster speeds falls in line with the industry's (and again, many politicians') ongoing refusal to acknowledge that the broadband market isn't all that competitive. After all, if you admit there's a problem, then you've admitted that somebody may just have to fix it.
FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly is squarely on the side of industry on this subject, having voted down the FCC's higher 25 Mbps benchmark. Even though 25 Mbps is a far from radical benchmark, and 3 Mbps upstream remains a bit of a joke, O'Rielly's dissent (pdf), made his disdain for faster speeds (and the technologies that will use them) abundantly clear:
"To justify setting the new benchmark at 25/3, as opposed to the current 4/1 or even 10/1 as several commenters suggested, the Report notes that 4K TV requires 25 Mbps. But 4K TV is still relatively new and is not expected to be widely adopted for years to come. While the statute directs us to look at “advanced” telecommunications capability, this stretches the concept to an untenable extreme. Some people, for example, believe, probably incorrectly, that we are on the path to interplanetary teleportation. Should we include the estimated bandwidth for that as well? "
Chortle! Guffaw! Of course 4K is here now, the streaming of which is already being hamstrung by ISP usage caps, even on ultra-fast connections. Now on the agency's majority, O'Rielly last week again proclaimed that the sector really needs to stop focusing on this whole ultra-fast broadband thing, since faster speeds are really just a novelty:
"The outcry for things like ultrahigh-speed service in certain areas means longer waits for those who have no access or still rely on dialup service, as providers rush to serve the denser and more profitable areas that seek upgrades to this level,” O’Rielly said. “Today, ultrafast residential service is a novelty and good for marketing, but the tiny percentage of people using it cannot drive our policy decisions."
Of course, that's not really true. Ultra-fast broadband and even consistent coverage aren't somehow mutually exclusive; we can focus on getting broadband to rural markets (first at slower speeds), and still enjoy gigabit speeds provided by the likes of Google Fiber. There's not a longer wait for broadband in Cleveland, for example, just because Google Fiber wants to bring broadband to San Antonio. As we've noted, the real reason there are stalled rural broadband deployments is a growing cable monopoly in areas that telcos are effectively giving up on. That FCC data now shows this is not somehow the fault of faster gigabit broadband itself.
The idea that gigabit is a "novelty" or unnecessary bumbles around the newswires occasionally, but originates with industry executives who don't want their own, slower speeds highlighted. But that doesn't mean ultra-fast service isn't important. Data has indicated that prices overall tend to drop in markets with ultra-fast service, which is likely a reflection of the increased competition that brought those speeds in the first place. AT&T's gigabit broadband service, for example, has been anywhere up to $50 less per month in markets where it faces competition from Google Fiber.
But even if there's a touch of marketing hype involved in the gigabit race, ISPs benefit from the fascination with faster speeds as well; numerous providers have noted that just advertising these ultra-fast connections causes consumers (most of whom have absolutely no idea what their current speed even is) to call in and upgrade to faster tiers, even if they're not the fastest options available. As Google Fiber made evident, ultra-fast broadband has captured the imagination of a public tired of overpaying for slower speeds. That excitement, and the surrounding competition, is not a bad thing.
If there's something that does get overlooked in the hype surrounding faster speeds, it's the fact that the United States still pays more for broadband service than a laundry list of developing nations, something the industry -- and O'Rielly -- also don't want highlighted in FCC policy discussions moving forward.