The $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill that the Senate passed in a bipartisan fashion Tuesday morning includes a provision to redefine “broadband” internet in a way that could leave many American households with seemingly online access. inadequate. What’s more, the bill relies on those same dubious new definitions to direct billions of dollars in new government spending.
Within the 2,700-plus-page bill is a new set of definitions for download and upload speeds that federal regulators will use to determine which parts of the country are “underserved” by broadband Internet. In turn, those updated definitions will guide the distribution of $ 42 billion in federal grants that the bill authorizes to “roll out broadband, close the digital divide, and enhance economic growth and job creation.”
The bill, which the Senate approved Tuesday with 69 affirmative votes, classifies a household as “unattended” if it does not have access to a connection with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 20 megabits per second. What Reason As explained above, that’s a significant change to the government standard for satisfactory internet speeds: Under current rules upheld by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a broadband connection is defined as having speeds of at least 25 megabits. per second and upload speeds of at least 25 megabits per second. at least three megabits per second.
By the current definition, the FCC Dear that there were about 14.5 million Americans who lacked broadband Internet access at the end of 2019. But that number has fallen rapidly – it decreased by about 20 percent during 2019 alone, according to an FCC update published in January this year. The so-called “digital divide” is still a problem, but it is getting narrower. The infrastructure bill will effectively expand it.
The definition of “broadband” has changed several times as technology and consumer demand for Internet services increases. The current “25/3” standard has been around only since 2015. The first standard, in effect from 1996 to 2010, required at least 200 kilobits per second of download and upload speeds. From 2010 to 2015, that increased to 4 megabits per second for downloads and 1 megabit per second for uploads.
However, what is different about this latest change is that the new standards far exceed the needs of most residential Internet users. It is important to remember that “broadband” standards are not a limit on what providers offer, but a floor for what the government considers essential for all Americans. Households wanting a 100/25 connection (where available) can pay for high-end online access for free.
How much internet speed do you need? An average Zoom call, one of the most common online activities with the highest load load (because the vast majority of online traffic is downloaded), uses only 1 megabit per second. Like this useful graphic from the Technology Policy Institute shows, a “100/25” connection is very out of sync with what most online services recommend:
When The Wall Street Journal and researchers from Princeton University and the University of Chicago teamed up last year to study the Internet use of 53 daily employees (people who probably use the internet more than most Americans)they found that users with connections capable of download speeds of 100 megabits used, on average, 7.1 megabits per second of their capacity.
In other words, the new federal broadband rule amounts to requiring that all homes have at least five bathrooms. Sure, there are some households that might need that, but it’s silly to impose such a broad standard on everyone.
It’s silly, unless you’re in the business of building toilets or providing high-speed internet connections. The correct way to understand the new definition of “broadband” is as a huge bond created by the government for Internet service providers that offer cable and fiber optic connections. Those are about the only ways to achieve hyperfast download speeds that would qualify as “broadband” under this new definition.
These providers have faced increasing competition in recent years from mobile networks and satellite internet providers, which can offer comparable speeds at lower costs because they can stream internet to homes rather than having to lay physical lines. But redefining “broadband” to include only higher speeds means that some of those services will now appear to be unsatisfactory by government standards, even though nothing in your service has changed.
More importantly, it also means that only a few Internet providers will be eligible for the massive amount of broadband subsidies that are about to start flowing from Washington to bring these supposedly “underserved” American households up to speed.
Ironically, the definition change could actually make it difficult to close the so-called “digital divide.” As Joan Marsh, vice president of AT&T, he pointed In March, when the current debate over broadband definitions was intensifying for the first time, setting poor standards can result in “overbuilding” that prioritizes faster access to places with already fast connections rather than reaching parts of the world. country difficult to connect. “Accurately defining unserved locations is essential to efficiently target grant dollars to areas that need connectivity the most, including sparsely populated areas where there is currently no fixed broadband solution,” he wrote.
Sure, AT&T has a vested interest in this fight – as a wireless Internet service provider, it is in continual competition with the cable and fiber optic providers on the market – but that doesn’t make this objection any less relevant. If the government’s goal is for all Americans to have online access, any connection should be considered superior to no connection.
Instead, new definitions in the infrastructure bill will encourage subsidies to flow to companies that promise to get already connected Americans to even faster connections, at speeds they don’t demand and likely won’t use, rather than extending access to those who are still connected. lack.