The FCC Wants To Know How Mobile Data, Broadband Caps, And High Prices Shape Broadband Access

It’s the FCC’s job to determine if broadband internet service is reaching enough people, quickly enough and competitively enough. To make that determination, every year they issue a report looking at the current state of broadband and how it’s changed. But broadband isn’t about wires anymore; it’s about wireless data and how quickly that moves (or doesn’t), too. And so the commission is considering a big change to their standards for the next go-around — one that would take a hard look at your cell service, too.

Here’s a bit of background on why one government report — basically the least sexy pair of words ever invented — is such a big deal.

In 1996, Congress rewrote the Telecommunications Act to include a huge number of 20th century (and theoretically 21st-century-ready) updates. Among the directives in the 1996 Telecom Act was a mandate that the FCC not only promote competition and broadband adoption, but also provide regular reports on the state of “current availability of advanced telecommunications capability” in America. The 2016 report will be the 9th annual report.

The thing is, in the two decades since 1996, there has been an extraordinary amount of change in the tech and telecom space. The first web gave way to Web 2.0 and now, depending who you ask, to web 3.0 or a post-web era entirely. Broadband access that in the late 1990s meant “a modem that can do 33.6K or better and maybe AOL and EarthLink numbers to dial in town” is now something else altogether.

A big part of the FCC’s job is to figure out what, exactly, that something else is. As the standards consumers expect (and need!) change, so too do the regulatory definitions need to keep up with the times. Every so often, then, the broadband report takes in some new data or some new tech, and ends up saying, “hey, actually, this is what people need.”

So for example, that’s how the most recent report, which the commission voted on back in January, wound up shifting the baseline speed of broadband to 25 Mbps from 4 Mbps. And this week, the FCC decided to ask a few key questions to see if the next report should go even further.

Formally speaking, the FCC voted to consider a Notice of Inquiry (NOI). That’s what it sounds like: a notice that the commission is going to inquire into something. The main points in the NOI are:

  • Should the report count mobile broadband as well as terrestrial (wired) broadband?
  • If yes, what speed threshold is the baseline for mobile broadband to qualify?
  • Should the report count fixed satellite broadband?
  • Should the report include network latency, connection consistency, pricing structures, privacy issues, or bandwidth caps as factors?

The question about mobile connectivity is not whether consumers should have access to mobile or wired broadband. Instead, the FCC wants to know if their report should look at the both/and issue. The question, specifically, is: Can broadband be considered fully-deployed in a given area if consumers there do not have access to both kinds?

In other words: today, if there is a cable that can get 50 Mbps internet service to your house, the FCC considers you to have broadband access. But if there’s no cell service available near your house, can you still be said to have sufficient, fully-deployed access to broadband?

That’s what the FCC has to determine over the next six months.

Although no determination has yet been made — the commission only voted to start thinking about the questions — opinions on the five-member panel are already badly split. Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn expressed general positive feelings about the FCC’s inquiries. Commissioner Ajit Pai, on the other hand, called the process “kabuki theater.” And commissioner Michael O’Rielly said he was “disturbed by the notion” that the FCC might think wired and wireless broadband are actually two different things.

As of right now, it’s all just talk. The commission has only just created the docket (15-191) and will accept public comment on the matter during an as-yet-unannounced window this fall.

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