How to Justify Continued Federal Meddling in Internet Service? Just Keep Changing the Goals!

FCC votes to change the definition of 'broadband,' increasing the minimum speed required.


We need the government to make sure you can stream "House of Cards" here without any problems. IT'S IN THE CONSTITUTION, PEOPLE!
Credit: lecates / photo on flickr

Barack Obama and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have been flogging continued federal involvement in the providing of private broadband Internet service with the argument that some citizens' Internet speeds just aren't fast enough. It manifested recently in a call for local governments to get into the business of competing with private service providers and offering municipal broadband (oblivious to the reality that typically local governments have been the barrier to better Internet service, not the solution).

The news today is that, in order to flesh out the assertion that there are enough folks who can't get decent broadband, the FCC has voted, 3-2, to simply change the definition of broadband, increasing the base benchmark speed and, by regulatory fiat, declaring that millions of Americans who had "high-speed Internet" yesterday are now listening to Spotify with soup cans on strings. From The Guardian:

In a 3-2 vote, the commission approved a measure that increases the minimum standard for broadband speed, giving the agency more power to force internet service providers to improve their service.

The definition of broadband is set to be raised from 4 megabits per second (Mbps) to 25Mbps for downloads and 1Mbps to 3Mbps for uploads.

With that speed as the benchmark, significantly fewer Americans have access to high-speed broadband. Under the previous definition, 19 million Americans were without access; the new definition means that 55 million Americans – 17% of the population – now do not have access to high-speed broadband, according to the FCC's 2015 Broadband Progress Report, which is in the final editing process but was cited at the hearing.

It's like mission creep within mission creep. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 pushed the FCC into involvement in making sure broadband spreads across the country (like the FCC was needed for this in any way, shape, or form). As broadband improves, the FCC is going to make sure they get to keep their spoon in the stew (or whatever "too many cooks" metaphor applies) by just ordering innovation via regulation. Who is this "we" Commissioner Mignon Clyburn refers to?

"We are never satisfied with the status quo. We want better. We continue to push the limit, and that is notable when it comes to technology. As consumers adopt and demand more from their platforms and devices, the need for broadband will increase, requiring robust networks to be in place in order to keep up. What is crystal clear to me is that the broadband speeds of yesteryear are woefully inadequate today and beyond."

All of this is true, and yet none of what Clyburn says is an argument for direct FCC involvement. Commissioner Michael O'Rielly dissented, pointing out, "Selecting an artificially high standard and applying it in a way that is impossible to meet in order to reach all Americans certainly in the near term makes a mockery of a process that was supposed to provide an honest assessment of broadband deployment in the United States." He wondered that, because some people believe we're on the way to teleportation technology, whether the FCC should estimate the bandwidth needs for that as well. Don't give them any ideas.

In an interesting bit of a sort of cronyism as a result of the limits of technology, telecom companies that offer DSL services through the phone lines—AT&T and Verizon, for example—will not be forced to adapt to these new demands because it's physically impossible. This means broadband providers will be required by the FCC to improve their Internet speeds up and probably far beyond what many of their customers need, therefore driving up their prices and encouraging customers who don't need bleeding edge download speeds to consider dumping them for their phone company competitors to save money. No wonder cable companies are upset by the news.

From 2010, here's Nick Gillespie and Reason TV with three reasons why the FCC needs to stay away from the Internet. (Spoiler: "mission creep" is one of the reasons):