In its 2015 Broadband Progress Report, the FCC updated its broadband definition to be 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Previously it defined broadband as being 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. When it made this change, the percentage of American households without access to “broadband” went from 6% to about 19%. While this move was a step in the right direction, this number and definition obfuscates the depth of the digital divide in this country. This is a problem exacerbated by how the FCC broadband definition is utilized in the awarding of Connect America Funds (CAF). The bar for acquiring these funds is even lower, at 10 down and 1 up. Since the broadband definition is so low, incumbent carriers can hit the 10 down 1 up with outdated technology running on old copper and phone lines they already have in the field. This essentially punts the problem a couple years into the future, when we will all wake up and realize 10 down and 1 up and 25 down and 3 up are woefully inadequate.
Many urban areas around the country now have access to 1000 Mbps both down and up, known as symmetrical service, while taxpayer dollars are being funneled to phenomenally wealthy companies so they can provide a service with download speeds that are 40 times slower and upload speeds that are 1000 times slower than this new gig standard. As a proud taxpaying American, this makes me furious, and it should upset you too.
The good news is that a relatively simple solution exists; the FCC need only update their broadband definition to reflect the capabilities of modern technology. I’m often told by rural providers (usually wireless ones) that gigabit connectivity is a totally unnecessary luxury that nobody needs. While it may be true that the average person has no use for these speeds currently, there is no doubt that in the near future, speeds much higher than 10/1 will be required. We know, for example, that Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality tech is right around the corner from mainstream adoption. We know that certain industries are sending and receiving larger and larger files all the time. In certain areas, such as the medical field, we know that this trend will continue and that the need to move very large chunks of data around very quickly will be paramount to their success. We know that autonomous vehicles are close to more widespread use, and that, from a safety perspective, these vehicles will need to be interconnected with as close to zero latency as possible.
So how will hospitals in rural areas send and receive these types of files? How will residents of rural America stream VR footage of their newborn relatives on Facebook? How will millions of autonomous vehicles communicate with each other on our roadways? The answer to these questions is all the same, we need robust, ubiquitous, truly high speed broadband infrastructure throughout the country.
Large swaths of the country are mired with terminally slow speeds served by de facto monopolies, only 15% of Americans have access to more than two ISPs. Having the FCC effectively helping the incumbent cable and telco companies deepen their profits, instead of truly tackling digital inclusion, strikes me as a gross misuse of public monies. I do not fault the FCC or big telecom for this, the issue is structural in nature — for-profit companies are beholden to their shareholders and will do whatever they can to take advantage of the FCC’s outdated broadband definition.
As I see it, the way forward is clear: we have a mechanism in CAF for the federal government to assist rural communities, and it just needs to be modernized to better reflect available, future-proof technologies. This same mechanism could also be leveraged to increase competition, which would bring tremendous benefits to consumers. If the FCC only awarded CAF to companies without assets in a given area, they would effectively be reducing the barrier to entry for competitors to enter rural marketplaces.
Back in 2015, when the FCC announced its increase of the minimum standard broadband definition to 25 Mbps, one brave commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, recognized the move’s inadequacy: “We invented the internet. We can do audacious things if we set big goals, and I think our new threshold, frankly, should be 100 Mbps. I think anything short of that shortchanges our children, our future, and our new digital economy.”
It will be difficult to enact this change. Even the move to the 25 Mbps standard was met with fierce opposition from ISPs with large quantities of DSL subscribers on their balance sheets. Both AT&T and Verizon strongly opposed the 2015 update, since between them they have around 7 million DSL subscribers. However, both are dedicating significant capex to the deployment of new fiber networks, so it’s possible, if highly unlikely, that they will be willing to take the hit to their wallets should such a change be implemented.
I am advocating that we look upon the digital divide with open eyes. In this time of extreme political division, it seems to me that this should be an issue that galvanizes both sides of the aisle to action. It affects all of us regardless of political affiliation, religious creed, race, or age. It may be politically unsavory to shine the light of truth on the fact that this country is even further behind the rest of the world than the already dismal numbers suggest, but I firmly believe that it is necessary to do so if we genuinely want to reverse the trend and make America great again.
About Ben Lewis-Ramirez
Ben Lewis-Ramirez is a Project Manager for the Network Design Business Development team at Foresite Group in Austin, Texas. He has over 7 years of management experience in the engineering, construction, and arboricultural industries, and has worked in many facets of the OSP engineering industry from field engineering to network design engineering and project management. Ben has a passion for bridging the digital divide to bring broadband to under-served communities throughout the U.S.