Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has always promised “accountability,” especially when it comes to broadband internet expansion to rural areas. He spoke to this point in a recent Marketplace interview, highlighting accountability benchmarks for internet providers and to his agency’s commitment to preventing redlining, a practice that would burden rural communities.
But the FCC’s recent inquiry into reducing the minimum speeds for broadband—something that sparked criticism among open internet advocacy groups—is the latest example of how Pai has failed to champion policies that would enable rural broadband to succeed once it’s built.
The most recent indication that the rural broadband promised under Pai’s chairmanship might not be the digital divide fix the FCC thinks is the agency’s approach to its annual evaluation of broadband standards, which is mandated by Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the subsequent Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2008. According to the notice adopted on Aug. 8, the FCC will “seek comment on whether a mobile speed benchmark of 10Mbps/1Mbps is appropriate for mobile broadband”—and, more to the point, if mobile broadband is good enough to replace fixed broadband.
While seemingly innocuous, this is a marked pivot from the standards adopted under former Chairman Tom Wheeler, which established 25Mbps/3Mbps as the minimum. Given Pai’s initial opposition to those standards as a commissioner (ones that were in line with telecommunications lobbyists) and the short period for comment of the current inquiry, the new move seems like a clear move against innovation. More importantly, the new inquiry’s focus on lowering broadband speeds at a time when the FCC has demonstrated a commitment to rural broadband seems like an easy out in defining what progress for the latter would look like. In other words, the move would shrink the onus on internet providers to provide customers with the best possible service—and rural communities will have the most to lose before they get a chance to gain.
The FCC’s inquiry is damaging to rural consumers on two fronts. First, let’s take a look at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association’s original argument that download speeds of 25Mbps were excessive. This number was based on projections for technologies that weren’t yet widespread. Not only is it shortsighted not to adopt standards for the future, but it’s also a guarantee that 39 percent of rural Americans without access to what is currently considered adequate broadband will be left behind their urban peers. With timelines scheduled so that the first wave of rural deployment will only be completed in 2020, fixing the digital divide with only 2017 in mind positions the United States to continue to lag in internet speeds among developed countries.
Yet the more immediate hurdle lurking in the FCC’s inquiry is the idea that because 13 percent of Americans are smartphone dependent, mobile broadband can help bridge the digital divide. This, I’d argue, is a willful misinterpretation of the causation and realities of smartphone dependence.
For one, even when families have access to smartphones, the data is often stretched between more than one user. When a family of five has just one smartphone—needing it for basic phone use, work, and homework—it becomes clear that smartphone-dependent internet isn’t a panacea. A 2016 report from Digital Equity for Learning found that among the smartphone-dependent families surveyed, 29 percent hit their data limit before a new cycle, 24 percent had their phone shut off due to non-payment, and 21 percent shared their device with too many other users for “sufficient time with it.” I’ve seen these statistics play out in both my reporting and my own young adulthood growing up caught in the digital divide.
There’s more to this issue, though. The idea that mobile data alone could sustain the internet needs of the average American is particularly concerning when combined with the FCC’s attacks on the Lifeline program, one that was expanded in 2016 to include a nominal subsidy for mobile data. Mobile, much like fixed broadband, won’t help rural Americans if they can’t afford it.
Leaving the onus on private companies to make their services affordable to these groups hasn’t proven successful in the past. A 2016 report from Digital Equity for Learning found that only 6 percent of parents with incomes eligible for discounted service had ever signed up for low-cost internet access. Comcast, one such company that offers discounted services to low-income families qualifying for HUD or free and reduced school lunches, as well as senior citizens, boasts having reached 3 million low-income users since its launch in 2011. But the program also comes with tight restrictions: Families can’t be current Comcast users or have an outstanding bill with the company, a not-insignificant possibility for low-income users. (It’s worth noting that Comcast has also been accused of using consumer data to help advertisers target things like high-interest credit cards against consumers in debt.)
And even with low-access programs, redlining—or providing low-income consumers with reduced service—still proliferates among many providers. Just last month, a formal complaint was filed with the FCC against AT&T, alleging that the service provider has intentionally withheld faster internet from poorer areas in Cleveland.
“I have focused on redlining as an issue, and we want to make sure, from a regulatory perspective, [that] there’s no issue with them deploying in those neighborhoods,” Pai said in the same September Marketplace interview.
Yet despite launching an Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment in April, the committee has neither been finalized nor released any policy recommendations. As many advocates point out, Title II provides protections against this exact behavior—a classification Pai’s FCC has nearly dismantled.
Since being appointed chairman of the FCC, Pai has done extensive work to spread his ambition of bridging the rural and urban technological divide, traveling from Appalachia to Southwestern native reservations. To his credit, he’s worked with lawmakers to move closer to making his vision a reality. For instance, he has pushed in front of Congress bills like the Gigabyte Opportunity Act, which will decrease regulatory barriers for those interested in building out rural broadband. Indeed, it’s certainly possible that Pai can achieve something great during his time as commissioner and continue the progress made under the previous administration.But doing so will require a commitment to policies that will support rural broadband—not just big telecom. If competition is truly the path forward to rural broadband, then the FCC should be endorsing policies that have been shown to spur it, rather than railing against net neutrality and stacking its advisory committees with telecommunications lobbyists. While it’s true that expanding rural broadband will require extensive collaboration among community partners, the federal government, and private corporations, policies should be used to foster the best possible service for consumers—not create ways for providers to cut corners.