Is the government doing a good enough job getting Internet access to the people?
Until recently, the government's own assessment was no — things could be better for many Americans fed up with slow service, high prices or a lack of competition. But a looming change in the way officials define Internet service may soon prompt the Federal Communications Commission to change its mind and say that, in fact, it looks like consumers are doing just fine, thank you very much.
The heart of the matter has to do with the minimum benchmark for Internet service, the subject of much political debate in recent years. Until 2015, the definition of broadband had long been left at 4 Mbps. Those download speeds might have been good enough for most Web applications in the early 2000s. But the rise of data-hogging TV and music services, as well as the economy's broader shift to an Internet-first footing, meant that the 4 Mbps target didn't quite cut it anymore, the FCC said in 2015.
That year, the agency revised its minimum definition of broadband to be any service that offered at least 25 Mbps downloads and 3 Mbps uploads. By this definition, the FCC said, 55 million Americans lacked high-speed Internet. Almost overnight, the FCC essentially created a big mission for itself to solve, using all of the policy tools and money at its disposal.
The move predictably divided people along partisan lines, with progressives supporting it as a push to enhance Internet access nationwide, while conservatives derided it as another example of government mission creep.
By working to publish a study on broadband deployment using the 25/3 definition, the FCC was deliberately concluding that industry had failed just so that it can “regulate it back to health,” said Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai.
Pai is now leading the FCC as its chairman. And the agency is poised to conduct the same study again, in accordance with its congressional mandate. It proposes to use the same definition, but this time, Pai has asked whether it would be appropriate to use a looser standard to define broadband. Specifically, he's asked if it makes sense to use a 10 Mbps down / 1 Mbps up definition and whether (and if so, how) to include mobile Internet in the definition.
“The Notice of Inquiry proposes maintaining the current 25/3 standard for fixed broadband, but also seeks comment on whether we should consider modifying that benchmark, and also asks if there are additional benchmarks we should include, such as data allowances, latency, or consistency of service,” said the FCC in a statement Thursday. “We will see where the record leads us.”
If the FCC's upward revision to 25/3 suddenly created a whole class of Americans without broadband, revising it downward to 10/1 would mean millions of Americans suddenly “getting” broadband back, and eliminating a policy problem the FCC no longer needs to solve.
For conservatives, this is precisely the point. In Pai's view, continually moving the goal posts is counterproductive, and misses what he says are the main barriers preventing Internet providers from upgrading their networks more quickly.
“They indicate that their caution stems primarily from regulatory uncertainty and in particular their concerns about whether and how Internet Protocol-based (IP) networks are going to be regulated in the future,” he said in 2015.
But Democrats say reverting to a definition that makes it easier for the FCC to claim it's done its job simply sweeps the problems of affordable access under the rug. On Wednesday, Democratic FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the idea of shifting to a 10/1 definition was “crazy.”
“Lowering standards doesn't solve our broadband problems,” she tweeted.
Concluding that there's nothing to see here has myriad implications for the average consumer. If there is no problem, there is no need for action. While reasonable people can disagree over the merits and drawbacks of regulation, this decision could have even wider consequences — shaping how the FCC lays out its priorities, crafts its policies and even allocates its funding for infrastructure projects or benefit programs.
Thursday marks the public's last chance to weigh in before an FCC procedural deadline. You can do so right here.
Correction: A previous version of this post said that Friday was the public's last chance to weigh in. It is Thursday.