FCC Won’t Redefine ‘Broadband;’ Move Could Have Worsened Digital Divide

Internet activists just got some unexpected good news from an unexpected source. Last summer the Federal Communications Commission floated the possibility of lowering its threshold for connections to be considered broadband. Now it’s backing away from that idea.

The FCC announced Thursday that it will continue to define home broadband as connections that are 25 megabits per second (mbps). The commission also established a new standard for mobile broadband as a connection of 10mbps or higher, and said it had rejected the idea—which it had floated last year—of labeling mobile internet service an adequate replacement for home broadband.

Consumer groups and advocates for rural communities had worried that changing the definition of broadband would enable the government to minimize the so-called digital divide, between communities with speedy internet access and those without.

Had the FCC decided to count slower connections as broadband, or accepted mobile connections as adequate, it would have effectively shifted many areas now considered underserved by broadband providers to be considered as adequately served. That could translate into less funding for broadband projects in communities stuck with slow connections.

“Far too many Americans still lack access to high-speed Internet, and that’s why the FCC’s top priority under my leadership remains bridging the digital divide and bringing digital opportunity to all Americans,” FCC chair Ajit Pai said in a statement today.

By law, the FCC is required to evaluate whether “advanced telecommunications” technologies are reaching the public quickly enough. If the agency determines they are not, it must take action to speed things along.

As part of its 2016 assessment, the agency increased its definition of broadband to 25mbps, from 4mbps, and rejected the idea that mobile internet would be a substitute for fixed broadband. Based on that definition, the agency found that 39 percent of rural Americans lacked access to adequate speeds, and ruled that “advanced telecommunications” were reaching the public too slowly.

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Then, last summer, the FCC, under Pai’s leadership, released a document known as a “notice of proposed rule making” asking if the availability of 10mbps mobile internet service should be considered “adequate.” In 2016, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly argued that mobile broadband might indeed be a substitute for fixed broadband; he and Pai accused the commission’s Democrats of setting the bar artificially high to justify more government intervention in the broadband market.

Thursday, the commission said it would not redefine broadband. However, the FCC said enough progress is being made to conclude that advanced telecommunications technologies are reaching the public at a reasonable pace. The commission referred to the FCC’s recent decision to jettison its Obama-era net neutrality rules as an example of the action its taken in the past year to advance broadband deployment, citing its questionable claim that the rules led to a decline in broadband infrastructure investment.

Democratic commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon L. Clyburn welcomed the decision not to change the definition of broadband, but rejected the conclusion that that broadband is being “reasonably and timely deployed.”

“This is especially tragic when according to the Senate Joint Economic Committee, there are twelve million kids that are caught in the Homework Gap because they lack Internet service at home,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “We should be reaching for faster speeds and universal access. Anything less than that, shortchanges our children and our future.”

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