Shrinking Standards

Republican leadership of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is looking to scale down some of the changes made by the previous administration to ensure the timely rollout of broadband technologies to every American. Critics of the possible rules change say that the move unfairly favors internet service providers (ISPs) over the public.

Since passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC has routinely checked to ensure that broadband internet access is being deployed across the country quickly enough. The FCC is required by law to "take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market." The Obama administration found that these standards are not being upheld, especially in rural areas.

Now, with the FCC back in Republican control, chairman Ajit Pai is looking to slow, if not altogether halt, broadband progress for underserved areas. The agency has released a "Notice of Inquiry," which gives the public a chance to comment on possible rule changes. The major change displayed in the document is allowing access to mobile data to be counted as broadband access.

As the rules currently stand, a consumer should have access to both at home (fixed) and mobile networks. The fixed network's speed needs to be at least 25Mbps (Megabits per second) download and 3Mbps upload, with no standard set for mobile networks. Pai, however, seems to be backing off from those standards by saying that access to both is not necessary, and that access to mobile data at speeds of 10Mbps download and 1Mbps upload are sufficient to qualify under the law. Given the many limitations of mobile data, critics say this is clearly not enough.

Image credit: Sundi Hayes/Flickr

Rolling Back Progress

This rules change would be in line with this FCC's penchant to favor ISPs over consumers. Back in May, the commission voted to begin rolling back net neutrality rules, a move that could see internet access looking more like a cable subscription than anything we are used to at the moment. Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone of New Jersey said in May that “This action will undermine the free and open Internet and hand its control over to a few powerful corporate interests.” The new rules would only deepen that control.

Allowing mobile data access (at any speed) to be a measurement of ensured connectivity is especially problematic when considering the socio-economic climate of those most vulnerable to the negative aspects of this rule change.

Mobile data is markedly more expensive and less reliable than fixed internet connections. Should these changes become the new standard, communications infrastructure growth in rural or impoverished areas could be halted in favor of projects more advantageous to the bottom line of ISPs, as opposed to the good of all Americans.

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