Americans might not need a fast home Internet connection, the Federal Communications Commission suggests in a new document. Instead, mobile Internet via a smartphone might be all people need.
The suggestion comes in the FCC’s annual inquiry into broadband availability. Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act requires the FCC to determine whether broadband (or more formally, “advanced telecommunications capability”) is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. If the FCC finds that broadband isn’t being deployed quickly enough to everyone, it is required by law to “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.”
The FCC found during George W. Bush’s presidency that fast Internet service was being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion. But during the Obama administration, the FCC determined repeatedly that broadband isn’t reaching Americans fast enough, pointing in particular to lagging deployment in rural areas. These analyses did not consider mobile broadband to be a full replacement for a home (or “fixed”) Internet connection via cable, fiber, or some other technology.
Last year, the FCC updated its analysis with a conclusion that Americans need home and mobile access. Because home Internet connections and smartphones have different capabilities and limitations, Americans should have access to both instead of just one or the other, the FCC concluded under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler.
Pai wants change
But with Republican Ajit Pai now in charge, the FCC seems poised to change that policy by declaring that mobile broadband with speeds of 10Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream is all one needs. In doing so, the FCC could conclude that broadband is already being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion, and thus the commission could take fewer steps to promote deployment and competition.
This would also be the first time that the FCC has set a broadband speed standard for mobile; at 10Mbps/1Mbps, it would be less than half as fast as the FCC’s home broadband speed standard of 25Mbps/3Mbps.
Although the FCC might conclude that mobile broadband can replace a cable or fiber connection, the commission also says consumers can’t expect mobile to be as fast. “We anticipate that any speed benchmark we set [for mobile] would be lower than the 25Mbps/3Mbps benchmark adopted for fixed broadband services, given differing capabilities of mobile broadband,” the FCC said.
The changes were signaled yesterday in a Notice of Inquiry, the FCC’s first step toward completing a new analysis of broadband deployment. The document asks the public for comments on a variety of questions, including whether mobile broadband can substitute for fixed Internet connections. You can file comments at this link; initial comments are due September 7, and reply comments are due September 22.
Is mobile data enough?
This week’s Notice of Inquiry says that “advanced telecommunications capability is provided in different circumstances using fixed or mobile service.” It also asks:
Given that Americans use both fixed and mobile broadband technologies, we seek comment on whether we should evaluate the deployment of fixed and mobile broadband as separate and distinct ways to achieve advanced telecommunications capability. Taking into account the differences between the various services and the geographic, economic, and population diversity of our nation, we seek comment on focusing this Section 706 Inquiry on whether some form of advanced telecommunications capability, be it fixed or mobile, is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. Would such an inquiry best follow the statutory instruction to evaluate the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability “without regard to any transmission media or technology”?
As a possible alternative, the FCC seeks comment on whether it should maintain Wheeler’s determination that Americans need both fixed and mobile service. The FCC may also evaluate mobile and fixed services separately and then make a judgment call as to whether Americans are getting broadband quickly enough. “[W]e propose to analyze fixed and mobile broadband separately and then consider the totality of the evidence in our ultimate determination of whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed in a reasonable and timely manner,” the document says.
But Pai has made it clear in previous years that he thinks mobile broadband can substitute for fixed connections. As far back as 2012, Pai’s first year on the commission, he criticized the then-Democratic majority for concluding that mobile Internet service can’t replace home Internet. In 2012, Pai said:
[T]he Commission has consistently ignored in recent years the statute’s direction that “advanced telecommunications capability” may be deployed “using any technology.” That instruction does not permit us to segregate fixed connections from mobile connections, focusing on the former and neglecting the latter. Instead, in making our statutory finding we should consider all broadband services meeting the statutory definition regardless of the technologies used to deploy them.
Pai held firm in 2015, criticizing Wheeler’s FCC for “studiously exclud[ing] satellite and mobile broadband services from its evaluation.” Pai also dissented from the FCC’s decision to raise the broadband speed standard from a minimum of 4Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream to 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up. That speed change excluded many DSL connections from being considered broadband.
The notice of inquiry also considers whether satellite and fixed wireless services should play a more prominent role in the FCC’s analysis of whether broadband is being deployed quickly enough.
Net neutrality repeal supposedly will boost deployment
In 2015, after concluding that broadband wasn’t being deployed fast enough, the FCC used its Section 706 authority to preempt state laws that limit the spread of municipal broadband, but a federal appeals court later overturned that decision. The extent of the FCC’s powers under Section 706 aren’t totally clear, but the statute authorizes the FCC to use “price cap regulation” to keep consumer costs down and to use “measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market.”
The Pai FCC’s notice of inquiry claims that the chairman’s plan to deregulate broadband service and eliminate net neutrality rules would help fulfill the Section 706 obligations by “encourag[ing] broadband investment.” The document also asks for suggestions of other “market or regulatory obstacles” that could be eliminated by the FCC.
Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn objected to several aspects of the notice of inquiry, including the failure to increase the home Internet speed benchmark and the consideration of mobile as a replacement for home Internet service. Clyburn wrote:
[W]e seek comment on whether to deem an area as “served” if mobile or fixed service is available. I am extremely skeptical of this line of inquiry. Consumers who are mobile-only often find themselves in such a position not by choice but because they cannot afford a fixed connection. Today, mobile and fixed broadband are complements, not substitutes. They are very different in terms of both the nuts and bolts of how the networks operate, and how they are marketed to customers, including both from the perspective of speed and data usage. I have heard from too many consumers who can only afford a mobile connection, and even then they have to drop service in the middle of the month because they cannot afford to pay for more data.
Clyburn also criticized the notice of inquiry for proposing to maintain the 25Mbps/3Mbps standard for home broadband.
“The statute defines advanced telecommunications capability as broadband that is capable of ‘originat[ing] and receiv[ing] high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications,'” she wrote. “High-definition video conferencing is squarely within the rubric of ‘originating and receiving high-quality… video telecommunications,’ yet the 25/3 Mbps standard we propose would not even allow for a single stream of 1080p video conferencing, much less 4K video conferencing. This does not even consider that multiple devices are likely utilizing a single fixed connection, or the multiple uses of a mobile device.”
Lastly, Clyburn faulted the commission for “seek[ing] to measure deployment in terms of year-over-year progress rather than whether the service is actually meeting the needs of consumers.”
More Info: arstechnica.com