Updating Broadband Speeds Could Help ‘Future-Proof’ Investment
WASHINGTON — The proposal to change the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband speeds by Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel last week could help “future-proof” the country’s once-in-a-generation opportunity to build broadband infrastructure, said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of the Rural Broadband Association.
The chairwoman kicked off the rule-change process last week circulating a “notice of inquiry” to quadruple acceptable broadband speeds to 100 megabits per second upload and 20 megabits per second download, she said in a statement. The rule change would require companies receiving federal funding for broadband programs to build infrastructure to accommodate those speeds many broadband advocates, including Bloomfield, see as vital to adequately bridge the digital divide.
The commission’s current speed requirements for providers receiving federal funding are 25 megabits per second upload and three megabits per second download.
The commission already began moving towards defining broadband at these higher speeds in May when it unanimously voted to change the definition of high-speed internet to be 100 megabits per second download speeds for its Alternative Connect America Cost Model program, increasing it from 25 megabits per second.
A typical teleworker needs up to 25 megabits per second, which is multiplied by everyone working remotely in the home, according to the commission’s broadband speed guide. The commission’s potential rule change, which would apply to every program, shows how prevalent broadband is in people’s everyday lives, Bloomfield said.
It shows an “actual understanding of just what broadband means and how it comes into play,” including access to telehealth and online learning, Bloomfield said.
The pandemic “was a revolutionary moment for people realizing” how the internet could bring people together, she said.
And broadband infrastructure needs to be built to withstand future needs, Bloomfield said.
“We certainly don’t want to have new grants and new programs building out to what is substandard now,” said Marty Newell, the COO for the Center for Rural Strategies.
“In order to do business you need 100 up and 20 down,” Newell said. “We don’t want to just be able to [watch] Neflix, we want to do business.”
For example, Newell’s office in Whitesburg, Kentucky, doesn’t have sufficient internet service, and the only provider for the area doesn’t offer business service, only residential, he said. So this change in definition from the FCC, along with the new broadband maps expected to be released this fall, would better show the places that still need to be connected, he said.
Current broadband maps overestimate the places that have access, Newell said. That includes his own office, which according to the current map has three options of internet providers, he said.
The potential rule change and new maps unleash many opportunities as the country spends billions of dollars to expand broadband access, Newell said.
“There’s no one way to achieve [full service to everyone] but opening up the funding will help,” he said.
The new definition also poses the risk of using these federal dollars for overbuilding, explained Sabine Neschke, a technology policy analyst for the Bipartisan Policy Institute.
Issues such as affordability and digital literacy are more important for closing the urban digital divide that hits primarily low-income Americans living in those areas, she said.
“The urban problem isn’t so much the availability of high-speed internet as it is these other factors. Certain policies such as the Affordable Connectivity Program help cover some of these costs for low-income homes, helping bridge this divide,” said Neschke. “However, many urban homes will continue to remain offline or utilize alternatives such as cellular broadband until the FCC more effectively addresses the underlying urban issues, while still efficiently using the funds targeted towards rural America.”
Rosenworcel’s notice of inquiry also proposes a future upload speed of one gigabyte.
“The 25/3 metric isn’t just behind the times, it’s a harmful one because it masks the extent to which low-income neighborhoods and rural communities are being left behind and left offline,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “That’s why we need to raise the standard for minimum broadband speeds now and … [aim] even higher for the future, because we need to set big goals if we want everyone everywhere to have a fair shot at 21st century success.”
This is very welcome, Bloomfield said. Many of the companies her association works with see more customers opting for that gigabit service, if offered, she said.
“We as American consumers love our bandwidth and we want more and more,” Bloomfield said, explaining more devices use the internet, like smart lights and home security systems, which increase bandwidth demands.
She also sees bringing that kind of internet service to rural areas as a way to revitalize many small towns people have been leaving.
“I really do think this is an opportunity for people to look at all of the parts of the country they could relocate to,” Bloomfield said. Broadband expansion gives people “the ability to work and raise your family anywhere and have the same opportunities.”