FCC to Hide the Digital Divide?

The next big decision on the FCC’s agenda is to consider the agency’s definition of broadband and to also consider if cellular data should be considered as broadband as part of that definition. This is slated to come up for a vote on February 3. The FCC raised the issue back in August and asked for feedback on the two issues.

To put this discussion into context, the FCC previously defined the speed of broadband while issuing mandated reports to Congress about the national state of broadband. These mandated broadband reports are issued every year and discuss major broadband issues, as well as quantifying the number of households that are considered to have broadband.

The FCC used the annual broadband report in 2015 to increase the definition of landline broadband to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. The FCC is thinking about using this year’s report to revise the definition of broadband lower again. At least two of the Commissioners are in favor of lowering the definition for landline broadband back to the old speed threshold of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.

Further, the FCC is considering counting cellular data speeds as a substitute for landline broadband, using a 10/1 Mbps definition. This would mean that a customer who can receive either cellular data or landline data that meets the appropriate speed would be considered to have broadband available.

Even if the FCC doesn’t lower the landline definition of broadband, adding cellular broadband into the test will mean that millions of homes would now be considered to have adequate broadband. That is a significant change, because by law, the FCC is mandated to work towards bringing broadband to any parts of the US that don’t have it. In effect, by a definition change the FCC will have done away with a lot of the digital divide. And if they lower the definition of landline broadband they will categorize even more homes as having adequate broadband.

There are a lot problems with using cellular data speeds to define broadband.  Here are several major ones to consider:

Hard to Measure Cellular Speeds. In the real world cellular speeds are nearly impossible to accurately measure. First, speeds differ by distance from a cell site, much like DSL. Customers more than a few miles from a given cell site get significantly slower speeds. Cellular data speeds also suffer from the same kind of interference as any wireless technology. For instance, homes behind a hill or tall building won’t get speeds as fast as those with a clear line-of-sight. Cellular data speeds change with variations in temperature or with precipitation. And most cell sites are still capable of making both 4G and 3G connections – which obviously has a major impact on speed.

Broadband Speeds are Reported by the Carriers. The cellular carriers are likely to report speeds by cell site, meaning that they will ignore all of the variations of speeds listed above. Further, there is more than one way to measure broadband speeds, which I have discussed before in this blog. There is over a 100% difference in reported cellular broadband speeds between Ookla and Akamai, the two major entities tracking data speeds. The carriers typically use the higher Ookla numbers when bragging about their speeds.

Makes No Assessment of Affordability. There is a monstrous difference in price between landline and cellular data. A household using 100 gigabytes of cellular data in the month might pay nearly $1,000 per month. Most ISPs report that the average US household now uses between 150 and 200 gigabytes of broadband per month. It’s hard to think of cellular broadband as a substitute for landline broadband with such disparate pricing.

Ignores Latency. One of the problems with cellular broadband is latency. This is one of the major reasons that downloading a web site on a cellphone sometimes seems to take forever. (The other reason is that cellular operating systems aren’t really designed to maximize web browsing). The poorer latency means that a 10 Mbps landline connection will feel much faster than 10 Mbps cellular connection.

Takes the FCC Off the Hook. But the major reason that counting cellular data as equivalent to landline data is that it’s going to largely take the FCC off the hook for promoting broadband. They currently have directed billions from the Universal Service Fund to help build faster broadband networks, mostly in rural America. They can discontinue such programs and not expand their effort if most of rural America is considered to have broadband. With a simple vote a large percentage of rural homes on the wrong side of the digital divide will suddenly have broadband. That’s going to be big news to rural people who already understand that cellular broadband is not really broadband.

7 thoughts on “FCC to Hide the Digital Divide?

  1. This is very interesting stuff. Can I please ask for some primary sources to validate it? I don’t see any in-line references that confirm this.

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    • It’s speculation on my part that this will be voted on soon, but it’s soon time to release another report on the state of broadband in the country, and that’s the docket where the definition of broadband has been deliberated in the past. It’s clear where the three Republican Commissioners stand on the issue. In numerous comments they’ve made in FCC dockets as well as in speeches they’ve made in traveling the country it’s clear that they strongly oppose the 25/3 broadband speed definition. They would like to see that speed lowered back to the old definition 10 10/1 Mbps or even abolish having a formal definition based on speed. They have also all said they are in favor of now counting the availability of cellular broadband as proof that somebody can get broadband. I’m not sure what you mean by in-line references, but I read almost everything that comes out of the FCC and this is a topic that is very much on the minds of the Commissioners, and which, in my opinion will soon turn into some sort of action from them.

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  2. Another excuse to raise your rates. ” well, you exceed the standard broadband and now use super broadband” (same data rate) “your charges will now increase for the premium service” The FCC are worthless industry insiders pandering to the companies who will offer them the best jobs after their term. There is no protection or innovation or economy for the consumer, only the filling of big telco/inet provider’s pockets – but what else is new.

    They allowed the NANP and caller ID system to completely fall apart, causing millions of dollars of lost productivity daily* with consumers and small business having no recourse from legalized caller ID spoofing and call completion scams. but hey, the provider’s keep making money under the caring arms of the FCC.

    *I am 1 of 323 million people in the US. I receive an average of 7 spoofed caller ID calls a day. Do the math and that’s millions of dollars in lost time, productivity, and prospective business calls in which the user does not answer believing it is another garbage call.

    Think the FCC is here for you. Think again.

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