Since it became obvious that internet access was going to be an essential for everyday living, the Federal Communications Commission has wrestled with how to encourage providers to build expensive wired networks to reach rural and remote communities, but not with much luck. Now the FCC is considering a new tactic for solving this problem: Suggesting that maybe there isn’t a problem so long as you can get online with your phone.
Why is the FCC asking this now?
The proceeding itself isn’t anything nefarious; it’s an annual process for the FCC.
Section 706 of the Communications Act requires the FCC to come up with a report every year outlining whether broadband deployment to Americans is sufficient. Most years that means we see a Notice of Inquiry surface around late summer, give or take, with a Report following the next spring.
In 2014, for example, the Commission asked if the 4Mbps download standard for “broadband” should be updated. A few months later, its report established the significantly faster 25Mbps as the new standard.
More recently, the FCC’s 2016 Sec. 706 notice looked into the question of whether or not cellular or satellite internet access should be considered effectively the same as wired broadband. That question was never resolved, due in large part to the turnover involved with the change to a new White House.
Now the newest Sec. 706 proceeding effectively suggests scrapping that 2016 question and starting over.
What is the FCC actually asking?
The actual text [PDF] is as dense as you’d expect for an FCC proceeding. Technically it has several dozens of inquiries in it. But the important ones boil down to about five key questions.
- Given that smartphones and LTE coverage are now widespread, should the FCC consider the use of mobile internet in its next report? (And several follow-up questions: how?)
- Since satellite internet exists, should it be considered a source of fixed internet service in the next report?
- Since we have to count the people who don’t have any access, can we start leaving out the ones who theoretically have access to phone data but not to home internet service?
- Can we drop the 25 Mbps download speed threshold back down to something lower?
- Is 10 Mbps download speed / 1 Mbps upload good enough for phone internet to be “broadband”?
Some of these have been perennial questions for years, like whether or not the FCC should count satellite internet as fixed broadband.
However, in the past the FCC considered that while mobile and fixed service were both important to consider, they should exist as separate axes — you couldn’t say that a home “had broadband access” if they were served by a wireless network but no wired service to the home was sold in the area.
What could change?
The Commission is not wrong to note that smartphone use has become massively pervasive in a short time.
Recent data from the Pew Research Center indicate that about 77% of all adults in the U.S. have a smartphone, with the number highest among those ages 18-29 (92%) and lowest among senior citizens (42%).
However, there’s a massive discrepancy in the ownership stats based on socioeconomic class. While 89% of those with college degrees have smartphones, that figure is only 54% for those who didn’t graduate high school. Likewise, 93% of those with household incomes greater than $75,000 per year have a smartphone, but only 64% of those who make less than $30,000 annually do.
Lower-income Americans are also vastly more likely to only use a smartphone, Pew notes. Among those with six-figure household incomes, only 4% skipped home access and lived the mobile-only life. But for those making $30,000 or less, that jumps to 20%.
Rural-dwelling Americans and those living on tribal lands are also the most likely to have trouble getting internet access at home. In the last Broadband Progress Report (2016), the FCC found that 39% of rural Americans lacked access to fixed broadband — something newer mapping data still bears out.
If the Commission were to decide that mobile service alone is sufficient, none of the low-income urban dwellers or far-flung rural residents who cable and telecom providers don’t serve would “count” anymore, so long as there was an LTE network available in their census tract. Suddenly, the internet access problem would seem largely fixed — but only because officials wouldn’t be looking at who falls through the cracks anymore.
What happens next?
The Commission is gathering public comment on the NOI until the end of September.
Stakeholders, like telecom businesses, lobbying groups, consumer advocacy groups, and even the general public, can all file their answers to the questions the FCC asked in the NOI. The Commission then takes those responses, and its own research, and assembles a Broadband Progress Report that will, theoretically, be released sometime between Jan. and March 2018.
But there’s a catch. As we’ve seen from FCC chair Ajit Pai during the latest assault on the net neutrality rules, the inquiries the Commission puts out under his leadership have a way of leading you directly to the answers they want to receive.
In short, it seems likely that if Pai is asking, “can we drop the definition” and “can we ignore people who we determine can use cell phones,” the answers he will decide on are “yes” and “yes,” no matter what the comments actually say.