Mobile broadband holds great promise, but is it enough?
The FCC’s reduced speed benchmarks for mobile broadband rollout in rural areas risks widening the digital divide.
Broadband access is vital to our society and economy — creating and strengthening socioeconomic inclusion locally, regionally, and globally. For the 24 million Americans who do not have have access to high-speed broadband, their ability to fully engage in the 21st century digital economy is stifled, perpetuating socioeconomic divides.
This is especially true in rural America where 39 percent of the population lacks access. For many rural Americans, low-quality mobile broadband is their only option and actions by the FCC suggest it will remain this way.
Risks of Lowering Speed Benchmarks
The FCC reduced download speed benchmarks from 10 Mbps to 5 Mbps to determine subsidy eligibility through its Mobility Fund II, a universal service fund of $4.53 billion set aside to support rural mobile broadband development for a term of ten years. This speed reduction comes in response to a petition submitted on behalf of T-Mobile, which cited evidence that provision of 10 Mbps is not consistently achievable in urban settings by the four major national wireless carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless) and inferred that requiring carriers to do so in rural settings, which face greater technological challenges, is unrealistic. So, the FCC asked providers to submit 4G coverage maps that would be compiled and used to develop a data-driven map that would identify areas most in need of Mobility Fund II support.
But, relying on mobile providers to supply accurate 4G coverage maps may be problematic. In an overwhelmingly effective crowdsourcing effort, over 20 million user-generated speed tests were submitted to the FCC, providing data-driven evidence of broadband speeds below 5 Mbps. When these speeds are compared with mobile providers’ 4G coverage maps, it’s clear that some providers may have inflated their 4G coverage claims.
Those maps are now under investigation and Mobility Fund II is on pause. Inaccurate coverage data would prohibit eligible areas from applying for funding support, stifling broadband development and socioeconomic growth. It’s critical that mobile broadband speed maps used to inform Mobility Fund II allocations are valid.
But even if 5 Mbps is available, is it enough? While lowering the speed benchmark may create an incentive structure that encourage providers to invest in under- and unserved areas, the question remains whether 5 Mbps — a speed barely capable of supporting streaming video service — is sufficient to constitute meaningful connectivity for rural communities. Policy changes like these reveal an assumption that any connectivity, even low-quality connectivity, will benefit rural communities. Yet, to borrow parlance from the private sector itself — quality matters.
High-speed internet access is a driver of opportunity, enabling critical social and economic inclusion. Speed targets of 5 Mbps limit opportunities for rural populations to take advantage of socioeconomic levers like telework, telemedicine, and online education. Mobile broadband holds great promise; yet it should not be thought of as a substitute to fixed broadband but rather its complement.
“Consumers who are mobile only often find themselves in such a position, not by choice but because they cannot afford a fixed connection. Today, mobile and fixed broadband are complements, not substitutes.”
- Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn, FCC
New Strategies for Inclusive Broadband Growth
Advancements in fifth-generation wireless networks (5G) and the reallocation of the 600 MHz range of underused spectrum between TV broadcasts, known as Super WiFi for its ability to traverse wide distances and natural and manmade obstacles, hold great promise for the provision of mobile broadband at speeds significantly faster than 5 Mbps.
New strategies like Microsoft’s AirBand Initiative are encouraging. By tapping into the 600 MHz range of underused spectrum, Microsoft estimates that it can provide mobile broadband at speeds greater than 10 Mbps to approximately 2 million people by 2022. The initiative also intends to support diverse internet access strategies, including public-private partnerships and creation of open access technologies capable of operating on the 600MHz band.
Federal initiatives like Mobility Fund II should continue in this vein by supporting public-private partnerships and open access connectivity strategies; streamlining access to infrastructure and right of way; and reallocating, lending, leasing, and loaning spectrum, especially spectrum capable of supporting 5G technologies. For much of rural America, mobile broadband is a promising step in enabling greater inclusion in the digital economy. But policies that prioritize the needs of powerful incumbents and provision of low-quality mobile broadband in rural areas risk further widening the digital divide.
- For an engaging discussion on barriers and opportunities for creating inclusive internet rollout and adoption strategies, check out the 2017 IGF-USA panel I chaired “Promoting a More Inclusive Internet”
- Signs of digital distress: Mapping broadband availability and subscription in American neighborhoods by The Brookings Institute