from the congratulations-for-doing-the-bare-minimum dept
Under the Communications Act, the FCC is supposed to occasionally survey the state of the broadband industry to ensure that affordable broadband is being deployed on a “reasonable and timely basis,” and do something about it if it isn’t.
Of course the captured, bumbling agency doesn’t actually do that.
Despite spending $400 million on the effort, the FCC has long struggled to even accurately map where broadband is available. It usually can’t be bothered to hold giant telecom monopolies accountable for outright fraud. It routinely downplays or ignores competition problems. And the agency has long held a pathetic, dated definition of what constitutes “broadband” just to please industry.
Broadband was originally defined as any 200 kbps connection. In 2010, that pathetic definition was changed to a slightly less pathetic definition: 4 Mbps downstream, 1 Mbps upstream. In 2015, it was changed again to a slightly more reasonable but still pathetic 25 Mbps downstream, 3 Mbps upstream, where it resides today.
For eight years straight everybody from consumer groups to the GAO told the FCC that the sluggish 25/3 definition didn’t reflect modern standards, and let the telecom industry get away with providing substandard service. The Trump FCC’s response was to propose lowering the definition even further.
While the FCC dawdled, other agencies like the NTIA have adopted a more aggressive 100 Mbps down, 20 Mbps up standard for most federally subsidized broadband builds.
Last week, the FCC (once again) stated that yeah, it should probably get around to changing the definition of broadband to something slightly more forward thinking:
the Notice of Inquiry proposes to increase the national fixed broadband standard to 100 megabits per second for download and 20 megabits per second for upload, and discusses a range of evidence supporting this standard, including the requirements for new networks funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Keep in mind, this is just the agency saying it’s beginning discussions of a higher standard. Actually implementing it will require a Democratic voting majority, which they don’t have thanks to the telecom industry’s scuttling of the Gigi Sohn nomination (the White House, key Congressional Democrats, and agency boss Jessica Rosenworcel offered zero real messaging support to Sohn as she faced down an industry-manufactured smear campaign, alone).
Even the new proposed 100 Mbps down, 20 Mbps up standard isn’t particularly aggressive in an era where any number of cooperatives, utilities, and municipalities are delivering multi-gigabit symmetrical broadband (Chattanooga’s city-owned utility is pushing toward 25 Gbps).
The 20 Mbps upstream standard in particular is being kept low to keep cable companies, wireless providers, and telcos selling aging DSL happy. It’s a long overdue update that still doesn’t really represent modern deployments or any meaningful goal. And while the agency hints at a 1 Gbps down, 500 Mbps up definition sometime in the ambiguous future, it’s hard to take them seriously.
As part of the FCC’s announcement, Rosenworcel also stated how she was dedicated to delivering broadband to 100 percent of the population, with a broader eye on affordability:
Chairwoman Rosenworcel proposes that the Commission consider several crucial
characteristics of broadband deployment, including affordability, adoption, availability, and
equitable access, when determining whether broadband is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion to “all Americans.”
Granted this promise isn’t really new. Part of the much-hyped Obama-era “National Broadband Plan” was to deliver 100 Mbps down, 50 Mbps up service to all Americans. We failed completely at that goal, and nobody much likes to talk about it. We failed because telecom monopolies effectively control Congress, and thereby key regulators. We failed because of corruption.
The GOP has been wholly corrupted by the telecom industry. Any time it holds the Presidency, the FCC becomes a mindless rubber stamp for telecom and media giants, gutting consumer protections, rubber stamping mergers, eroding media consolidation limits, and pretending U.S. broadband is wonderful. The GOP opposes any meaningful broadband definitions whatsoever.
Some Democrats are slightly better on telecom policy, but the kind of feckless careerists appointed to key leadership positions generally don’t like rocking the boat. So you get some good ideas, but mostly just empty rhetoric about the ambiguous “digital divide.” Nothing that seriously challenges monopoly power. The DNC supports baseline broadband definitions, but nothing particularly ambitious.
The FCC has increasingly been criticized as useless on broadband consumer protection. It took a major reputational hit for bungling a major rural subsidy program, resulting in the Biden administration shifting a lot of responsibility for managing the infrastructure bill’s broadband funding to other agencies.
Even within its dwindling authority, FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel has a strange allergy to even acknowledging that the real reason for America’s substandard broadband access is a bunch of government-coddled regional monopolies that have crushed competition underfoot.
It’s not of interest to the press, but lobbyists for AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and Charter, have effectively kept the FCC on the consumer protection sidelines for the better part of the last decade. These industry giants whine like a full-diapered toddler any time anybody suggests a more robust definition of broadband, and the FCC always lowers the bar to please industry.
So yeah, it’s good the FCC finally decided to start upgrading our sorry ass definition of broadband nearly a decade after the fact. And it’s good that the agency is at least talking about affordability. But again, it’s hard to applaud an agency for belatedly doing the bare minimum, especially given its absolute refusal to so much as even criticize the monopoly power responsible for substandard US broadband.
Filed Under: 100 Mbps, broadband, definition, dsl, fcc, fiber, gigabit, gigi sohn, high speed internet, jessica rosenworcel, telecom, upstream, wireless