What is "broadband" internet access? Right now the FCC restricts the term to wired connections with 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload speeds. Now the agency has asked the public to comment on its proposal to include in that definition wireless connections, which have a minimum 10Mbps down and 1Mbps up. Although this might seem like a minor change, it could have major consequences for Americans who live in areas without broadband internet access.
It's important to note from the start that these are just preliminary discussions. The FCC has not decided to consider both wired and wireless internet access when it comes to the country's broadband goals, nor has it decided on the 10/1Mbps requirement. Requesting public comment on these proposals is ostensibly meant to allow experts, analysts, and the general public to influence the agency's regulation of broadband internet.
Broadband internet access has become all but necessary in modern society. We use the internet for work, entertainment, and everything in between. Anyone who doesn't have easy access to a speedy internet connection is at a disadvantage, which is why the FCC sets goals for broadband expansion within the U.S. The idea is to make sure everyone—or at least as many people as possible—can access vital infrastructure.
The FCC effectively argued in the notice of inquiry that wireless networks can provide substitute for wired connections. The agency noted that most Americans have smartphones, which can be used to handle everything from Snapchat to Microsoft Word, even though the latter used to be limited to PCs. Under this proposal, using a smartphone on a wireless network would be equivalent to having a wired connection for a PC.
Surprise! Wired And Wireless Connections Aren't The Same
In a statement released today, FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn took issue with that claim. She explained:
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.
Put another way, the FCC's argument that being able to edit a Word document on a smartphone means someone doesn't have to worry about their PC's internet connection is like telling someone with a bike that they don't need a car. Sure, they can probably get where they're going, but it's going to be pretty hard to go on a family road trip with everyone on the handlebars. There's a difference between capability and viability.
Clyburn also noted that even the 25/3Mbps minimum isn't really enough to handle everything someone might throw at it. 1080p video conferences would struggle to keep up, she said, and 4K conferences simply wouldn't be possible. Cutting that goal in half for wireless connections and then saying those connections qualify as "broadband" internet access would severely limit what people can do online.
There's also the problem of practicality. Wired connections tend to be more stable, offer more data, and support more devices than their wireless counterparts. Everything from the weather to a phone's physical proximity to a cell tower determine the strength of its wireless connection; wires don't have that problem. Most smartphone data plans also have relatively low data caps, and raising those caps often results in a large increase in price.
You also have to consider the devices themselves. Typing a college paper on an iPhone keyboard is doable, but it's not ideal. Phones also have these pesky little things called batteries that like to run out at inopportune moments, which throws another wrench into the gears. Wired connections are often more stable, affordable, and viable than their wireless counterparts when it comes to getting stuff done.
There are two other problems to consider: wireless network providers and the FCC's willingness to listen to the public's comments.
Wireless network providers became an even bigger issue in July, when Verizon capped data speeds for Netflix and YouTube videos that were watched on a smartphone. That violated the spirit of net neutrality, if not the letter of the law, and it raised concerns about the control wireless networks have over their customers' activities. How are people supposed to count on these connections for critical work if they can't handle leisurely streaming?
Does The FCC Really Want The Public's Comments?
Yet this could all be a moot point. The FCC published this notice of inquiry because it wants the public to comment on the proposal, but the agency doesn't have the best track record when it comes to respecting those comments. Just remember the agency's controversial net neutrality proposal, which would roll back Obama Administration protections for net neutrality, and how it responded to the public's backlash.
A refresher: The FCC received so many comments that its site was forced offline. The agency claimed this wasn't because it received many comments, however, but because it was targeted by distributed-denial of service (DDoS) attacks following a "Last Week Tonight" segment. The agency made similar claims when "Last Week Tonight" ran another segment about net neutrality and its importance back in 2014.
Gizmodo recently reported that there was no proof of the 2014 attack, which cast doubts on the claims about the 2017 followup. (That's according to multiple sources who investigated the alleged cyber attack.) If that is true, it means the agency has twice waved away public backlash about internet regulations by claiming that its site was swarmed by a bunch of bots, not by commenters rushing to express their concerns.