What Redefining Broadband Means

In January, the FCC announced a radical policy update as it redefined broadband for the first time since 2010, to 25 Mbps/second down and 5 Mbps/second up. The move had a number of implications for the United States, which lags behind most of the West — and a fair chunk of the global south — when it comes to broadband access and internet speeds. In a country where tech rules and the entire nation appears collectively obsessed with cultivating a culture of startups, and technological domination, a large chunk of the country has rather piddling internet access at best.

The FCC’s policy change had widespread implications. For starters, it may have torpedoed the Comcast/Time Warner merger by changing the way we look at broadband, and giving the merged companies an effective monopoly in many regions. Should the two firms merge, they’d control as much as 70% of the US telecommunications market when it comes to internet services, which does not have the FCC or the Department of Justice thrilled. It might come as a relief to those who don’t relish the thought of the two worst companies on earth joining together in an unstoppable hydra, of course. Pressing the issue on broadband also means that neither firm can weasel out of accountability in advertising; because both offer ‘broadband’ that falls far below the new standard.

Which brings us to the second issue. The FCC notes that over half of households in the US cannot access internet that meets the new standard. This isn’t the case of the FCC creating a new digital divide, but of the organisation highlighting and underscoring the divide that was already there. By creating a mandate to address the divide, and redefining standards, the FCC is clearly hoping to improve internet access across the US, particularly in rural communities.

Having actual broadband service could make a huge difference to rural schools, libraries, and hospitals, all of which are currently relying on painfully slow services. That translates to more opportunities for people of all ages, like educational resources for children and remote consults in hospitals. In rural regions, people often lack access to specialised resources and professionals because there aren’t enough users to support a full-time provider (Latin teachers aren’t very popular in rural communities, any more than hip replacement surgeons). That means that people lose out on a variety of cultural advantages that people in urban communities take for granted, like the ability to get an excellent educational grounding that will help a student get into college, or access to the latest surgical techniques for someone injured in a car accident.

Addressing the digital divide isn’t just about acknowledging that one exists, but forcing the hands of the companies exacerbating it. The firms that have dragged their heels on broadband — the same ones protesting the upgraded standards — have counted on the FCC’s sluggishness and conservatism to avoid upgrading their own technology and installations. Now, they’re being hauled on the carpet, as the agency forces the issue and pressures them into addressing their technological shortfalls. In addition to promoting better broadband access, this also means more competition as companies have a chance to gain a foothold in new communities and keep it, but only if they can outstrip the services of their rivals.

Notably, the new definition is, in the estimation of some, a bit overkill. And that’s the whole point. In 2010, the revised standard was already falling short of many internet users, who were watching high volumes of video, uploading and downloading significant data files, and using services like Skype to communicate. This year, the agency didn’t want to make the same mistake, so it built a new standard with some breathing room, creating space for expanded future technologies and uses of the internet that haven’t even been predicted. 25 Mbps up and 5 down is going to see laughably slow sometime in the future — perhaps even in the near future — but for now, it sets a solid baseline standard that holds telecommunications firms accountable.

More than creating better standards for people living and working in the US, the policy change is also about keeping pace on the international stage. The condition of the internet in the US is laughable to many other nations, making it both a functional and a PR problem. For companies working with US-based firms or considering relocation, slow internet speeds are a serious consideration, especially in a tech-based era; why relocate to a nation with outdated standards and equipment that may hinder, rather than help, your ability to function as a company? Especially when numerous other Western nations offer their own high speed internet along with incentives for firms interested in working in or with them?

Furthermore, it’s rather embarrassing for a nation that prides itself on the latest, greatest, and best. For a country that constantly parades its exceptionalism, the US has pretty unexceptional internet access, something the rest of the world is quite aware of as it looks in at the massive nation and the way it does business. The fact that the country has lagged so much on the development of an actual internet backbone while simultaneously promoting internet innovation is somewhat quixotic, and the FCC is attempting to address this bizarre state of affairs — meanwhile, maybe we need to hold a Kickstarter to jumpstart the undoubtedly massive expense of overhauling our existing telecommunications infrastructure.

Image: Broadband, free press, Flickr