Why The FCC's Redefinition of Broadband Is Huge
On Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission voted three to two to change the official definition of "broadband Internet." It's more than just semantics -- it's huge.
The implications of the FCC decision on Thursday to upgrade the data speed standards at which an Internet connection officially can be labeled "broadband" -- from 4/1 Mbps (download/upload) to 25/3 Mbps or faster -- will ripple through several industries, and some important impending business moves, for the rest of this year and beyond.
Simply put, the simple semantic change will redefine the Internet landscape to come.
That's because the definition change isn't just "keeping up with the times." It not only affects government programs and regulations and standards for labeling and advertising by ISPs, it changes the benchmarks used by companies to argue for mergers and allocate infrastructure build-outs. It also sets the bar higher for the cultural debate around who -- and how many -- are being left out of the 21st century. The following are just a handful of the immediate implications of the FCC decision.
DSL Is Not Broadband
My parents will be shocked to find out they've never had broadband Internet. The redefinition basically makes official what has been obvious to many for many years: Cable competitors, fiber optic connectivity, and even some forms of wireless LTE -- not to mention the bandwidth requirements inherent in much of what the modern Internet has to offer -- have left DSL in the dust.
Put another way, for the early 21st century, DSL is the new dialup. The technology (which uses the same phone lines as dialup) simply cannot be improved to the point where it meets the Internet's de facto -- and now thanks to the FCC, de jure -- standards.
Smartphones Are Not Broadband
Another Internet technology that can be ruled out as "broadband" is 4G LTE, the best wireless has to offer.
LTE isn't in the same position as DSL, and in some places nearly all of the major LTE networks do offer upload and download speeds that can meet the FCC's definition of broadband, those peak speeds are not reliable across geography, time, or usage.
So just because CNET found that every carrier but Sprint hit above the "broadband" mark one balmy day in San Jose, California, doesn't mean you'll get the same performance at all times or during high network traffic, much less everywhere else in the country.
Wireless is tricky to measure, but in general, average download speeds for LTE in the U.S. comes closer to DSL than broadband.
LTE may be broadband in other countries, but not in the U.S. Not currently. (Photo : OpenSignal)
That could change with the wireless industry's rapid deployment of better, faster technologies, but at least at the moment, smartphones are not broadband.
A Real Sense of the Digital Divide
Under the new definition, as The Verge reported, the new definition of broadband adds an additional 13.1 percent of the U.S. to the already 6.3 percent (under the 4/1 Mpbs rule) who have no access to broadband. While it may seem strange, the updated definition of broadband is similar to changing the poverty line to keep up with inflation -- it's just that the bandwidth required to access common, advanced and upcoming Internet services is what's been inflating.
The definition change will affect specific programs -- for example, digital divide-bridging programs like the FCC's E-Rate Internet deployment for schools and standards for deploying Internet technologies to rural and poor neighborhoods. But similarly to redefining the poverty level, the semantic change also empowers government agencies tasked with lessoning the problem.
In this case, the FCC empowered the FCC. Now it can more aggressively follow through with its mandate to ensure that broadband access is being "deployed in a timely way" to Americans, and changes what service levels ISPs can call broadband.
As the FCC noted, "55 million Americans -- 17 percent of the population -- lack access to advanced broadband." That figure gets more drastic when you get outside of large population centers, as the commission added. "Moreover, a significant digital divide remains between urban and rural America: Over half of all rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service."
The definition is also important for the urban poor, most of who live in good LTE coverage areas, but may not have a home broadband connection and instead rely on smartphones for the Internet instead. Many smartphone-savvy Latinos do, low-income or not.
Under the previous definition of broadband, it was becoming more common to see smartphones as a way to bridge the so-called "digital divide" -- the gap between those with the means and availability for broadband and those without -- even though in practice, that logic didn't make sense.
Even Pew Research in 2013 suddenly found that the previous 20-point digital divide between whites and Hispanics suddenly shrunk to an insignificant five percent if you treated smartphone access as an equivalent to desktop-based broadband.
But the two forms of Internet access are utterly different when it comes to the practical things for which one needs real broadband. Don't believe me? You try doing a week's worth of work using only your smartphone; the way kids in LTE-only households have to do their homework.
Luckily, the FCC just obviated any more arguments along those lines by redefining the standard, as the National Hispanic Media Coalition applauded: "The FCC's action today is a much needed reflection of our aspirations as a country, and an embrace of the idea that we ought to study whether all Americans can access the connectivity that they need for the apps and services of tomorrow, not yesterday," wrote Michael Scurato, policy director of the National Hispanic Media Coalition in a release to LatinPost.
It Destroys Comcast's "Competition" Argument for TWC Merger
Finally in what may be the most "House of Cards" Frank Underwood-ian stealth move I've seen in my time monitoring the wonky bureaucracy of the FCC, Chairman Tom Wheeler's change in the definition of broadband makes it much, much harder for the proposed mega-merger between Comcast (the largest cable company in the U.S.) and the second-largest, Time Warner Cable.
TIME fully laid it out this morning, but here's the short and sweet version.
Up until Thursday (the previous paradigm), Comcast used the official broadband definition to claim it was battling Internet competition on all sides.
DSL, LTE, even some dialup services were all "broadband competitors" in the markets Comcast and Time Warner Cable otherwise dominated. They argued that a merger would only lead to about 35 percent domination over the "broadband" market in the U.S.
Under the truer (and now official) definition of broadband, the merger would result in monopolistic control over at least 60 percent, and possibly closer to 70 percent of the country's modern Internet connections.
The old paradigm afforded credibility to those arguments, some of which I found so incredibly dishonest, I wrote a five-part analysis on why (be forwarned: it's a bit of a rant).
The new paradigm takes away most of the weight behind those arguments: Good luck getting a proposed monopoly over one of the most important resources in the 21st century, spanning across two-thirds of the country, past the Federal Trade Commission.
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