With net neutrality now repealed, the Federal Communications Commission moved late last year on yet another issue: redefining high-speed, broadband internet to include cell phone data.
No, they are not the same thing. That’s part of the reason the idea was met with criticism from many quarters.
Opponents feared equating mobile access with broadband access could lead to internet providers not investing the capital to extend internet service to those in rural and underserved areas.
Millions still have much slower access to the internet than those in large metropolitan areas. Proponents of FCC regulation tend to feel that only government regulation will result in internet providers extending service into these regions. Without them, the so-called “digital divide” could widen between areas with high-speed access and those without.
In a memorandum released in January, however, the FCC appeared to back off the issue. In a release, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said that “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.”
That’s a relief for internet advocates already reeling from the repeal of net neutrality. But the debate is likely far from over.
Debate Over 2015 Regulations
The move to reclassify cell phone data as broadband internet would essentially mean that the FCC views slower mobile connections on the same level as broadband access. Since part of the FCC’s charge is to ensure that high-speed internet access is available in as many communities as possible, the concern was that reclassifying cell phone data on the same level as broadband would lead to fewer projects to extend high-speed connections to all parts of the country.
However, Pai argued that just the opposite is happening.
In an editorial for the Los Angeles Times, Pai noted that there has been less investment in rural internet infrastructure in recent years. Pai traced the issue back to the 2015 Title II regulations adopted by the FCC that instituted stronger government regulation.
In the two years after the regulations passed, investment in domestic broadband capital expenditures dropped by $3.6 million, according to Pai. He said small ISPs told the FCC that the regulations affected their ability to find financing for broadband projects in underserved areas.
Pai wrote that the because of the regulations “fewer Americans have high-speed broadband access, fewer Americans are working to build next-generation networks, and fewer Americans have competitive choice than would have been the case had the FCC not gone down the Title II path.”
Members of the FCC, including Pai, have argued that technology has reached a point where cell phone internet access is closing the gap with broadband.
In general, they are against government regulations that force broadband companies to extend services into rural or underserved areas. As noted by Pai, government regulations have lessened private investment.
Opponents point out that cell phone connections don’t approach the 25mbps rate that the FCC set as the standard for adequate internet access in 2016. To make the point, the organization Next Century Cities launched a campaign in January called #MobileOnly that challenged people to pick just one day to try to do everything they do on the web through a mobile connection only.
Why This Matters
As can be seen, the reclassification issue is part of a larger debate, largely between Republican and Democrat members of the FCC, over government regulation of the internet.
For opponents of reclassification, the change would mean less access for those in rural and lower income areas.
FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said in a statement that a U.S. Senate report found 12 million kids don’t have adequate access to the internet to do their homework. She added, “We should be reaching for faster speeds and universal access. Anything less than that, shortchanges our children and our future.”
Reclassification could also impact online businesses in rural areas that won’t have adequate access to serve customers.
Still, while not reclassifying mobile connections to equate as broadband, Republican FCC members said enough is being done to have internet access reach everyone at a reasonable pace. That language, coupled with the ongoing debate about government regulation indicates this is not an issue that is going away soon.