Will the FCC Put the U.S. Back on the Information Slow Lane?

With a new U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman in place, new policy proposals are emerging.

The U.S. has always been a bit of a laggard compared to other developed economies when it comes to the availability of suitably fast “broadband” connections. But there has been recent progress in upping those speeds—now from 4Mbps downloads to 25Mbps downloads and 1Mbps uploads to 3Mbps. This has nudged the U.S. up the ranks of global connection speeds to 10th place, according to the latest Akamai global survey. In 2015, the U.S. didn’t even crack the top 20. Progress is also helping to set a new benchmark for what is defined as “high speed.”

Now, the new FCC administration is working toward changing that definition. In a Notice of Inquiry released earlier this month, the FCC is seeking public input on whether a high-speed mobile connection can serve consumers in lieu of a fixed connection. Under the previous administration, the aim was to ensure Americans had access to both fixed and mobile options. Not only would this change signal a potential reduction in consumer choice, it would also alter the language of what the FCC defines as “advanced telecommunications capability.” Focus would shift from the higher speeds obtainable via fixed broadband to the lower speeds of a mobile connection. Among the questions the FCC is posing in its Notice of Inquiry is whether 10Mbps downloads and 1Mbps uploads are a sufficient benchmark for mobile internet connections.

The FCC isn’t seeking to downgrade the benchmark speed for fixed lines, but positioning mobile lines on par with fixed connections may suggest to telecom companies that they needn’t invest further in improving or building out their wired infrastructure. That would leave millions of Americans, especially rural Americans, in the slow lane.

At the end of 2016, the FCC noted that 10 percent of all Americans (34 million people) lacked access to a 25Mbps/3Mbps connection. The problem is acute in rural America, where 23 million lack access to those broadband speeds. Those access numbers would likely improve if the FCC determined that a mobile connection was good enough—but is it?

That depends, of course, on what you want to do. You can sustain an HD Netflix stream with a 10Mbps connection but forget about streaming 4K content from Netflix and other OTT providers. High definition Skype video conference calls would also be very iffy. Even if consumers opted for HD streaming and lower-quality video conferencing, they would still be subject to data caps imposed by mobile carriers (even the so-called unlimited data plans offered by the nation’s four major carriers have caps on 4G data access and even sharper curbs on hotspot usage).

In short, by elevating mobile connections to the same status as a fixed line, the FCC could claim that telecom firms are ensuring that most Americans have access to speedy broadband when, in reality, they’d be left with slower, costlier connections.