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​US government's new broadband rules don't add up

Both Trump and the FCC say they're supporting faster broadband, but the facts tell a different story.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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One of the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) arguments for wrecking net neutrality was that it would encourage Internet Service Providers (ISP)s to invest more in broadband. More recently, President Donald Trump at the American Farm Bureau Federation meeting in Nashville signed an executive order to improve rural broadband. But, what's really happening?

For all the chatter about 5G at CES, none of the major ISPs have announced significant new broadband -- wireless or fixed line -- deployments. In fact, we don't even know who's getting broadband and who isn't.

In a recent FiveThirtyEight interview, Steven Rosenberg, the FCC's wireline competition bureau chief data officer, said that while the FCC collects broadband speed and technology data, it doesn't release it. That's because the FCC is wary of "one carrier learning about another carrier's market share or where their customers are."

Sure, the law, Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, requires the FCC to determine whether broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. If they're not, 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." But, that's not what's been happening.

Adie Tomer, a Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program researcher, added that since there's no rule all Americans should have broadband access, ISPs may not report accurate data to the FCC. Tomer said, "There's an extreme interest for the ISPs to be hiding their hand."

What we know is that, in 2015, the FCC upgraded its broadband definition from 4Mbps down/1Mbps up to 25Mbps down/3Mbps up. It sounds good doesn't it?

Well, get ready to kiss it goodbye. FCC chairman Ajit Pai is getting ready to redefine broadband back to 10Mbps down and 1Mbps upload. While landline speed requirements will remain the same, cellular data speeds of 10/1 will be declared broadband and -- this is important -- this slower mobile broadband is considered the same as landline broadband.

Of course, mobile broadband is no substitute for landline broadband. As the Brookings Institute explained in its recent internet study, Signs of Digital Distress, they specifically focus on "wireline broadband. [Because] While wireless data plans have exploded in popularity since 2011, wireline broadband continues to offer multiple benefits to household users. Specifically, it delivers higher connection speeds, permits greater cross-platform security, typically includes unlimited data, and maximizes a mobile device's utility via high-speed Wi-Fi. As such, wireline broadband is a critical, in-home gateway to the content, applications, and services that enable households to participate in a digital economy."

Read also: Trump signs executive order to boost broadband internet development in rural US (TechRepublic)

But with Trump's FCC plans, here's how it will work: If you live in, say, rural West Virginia -- which is where I'm from -- an ISP can claim it's offering you broadband so long as there's a cell tower that delivers, sometimes, 10/1 speeds. These country mobile broadband services cost more than landlines, has poor performance, and minimal acceptable service guarantees. But, under the FCC's new rules, both the ISP and the FCC can claim they're delivering more broadband than ever.

It therefore should come as no surprise that Trump's executive order does nothing to encourage ISPs to spend money on landlines. It simply makes it easier for ISPs to get permits for cell towers on rural private lands and on federal lands.

Put it together -- and you have a government working hand-in-glove with ISPs to maximize their mobile profits while failing to address the pressing and real needs of people, especially in rural communities, for reliable, affordable broadband.

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