Last Week in Tech Policy #62: Fixed vs Mobile Broadband

(by Stefan Tschimben, CU ITP Ph.D Candidate)

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the Federal Communications Commission to determine “whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” Many people were surprised and worried when the FCC suggested in an August 2017 Notice of Inquiry equating mobile broadband alongside fixed broadband in its Broadband Deployment Report. The FCC concluded:

Americans today regularly use both fixed and mobile advanced telecommunications capability to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications.

Following this conclusion, the FCC determined on February 2, 2018 in its Broadband Deployment Report that broadband is being deployed in a timely fashion and that 99.9% of the US population are served by some form of broadband. The FCC reached this conclusion in part by including both satellite and mobile broadband in the analysis.

This conclusion followed the Commission’s Twentieth Mobile Competition Report from 2017, which concluded that 99 percent of the U.S. population lived in an area with LTE coverage from at least one service provider and that mean download speeds during the first half of 2017 were about 15 Mbps.

These conclusions raised questions among various stakeholders, including the prominent #MobileOnly challenge. Does mobile broadband with comparatively low speeds of 15 Mbps satisfy the same requirements as fixed broadband? Broadband is not solely used for entertainment, and businesses and schools depend on broadband access. A growing number of people who depend on access to the Internet for education and employment. Online classes and telecommuting may be constrained by limited mobile data caps—as are entertainment options like 4K video or multi-gigabyte video games. Tethering restrictions may make it difficult to share a mobile connection with devices such as laptops and tablets.

These conclusions also cut against the FCC’s previous findings In 2016 the FCC had determined that more than 10% of the American population and 4% of Americans living in urban areas did not have access to a 25 Mbps downstream / 3 Mbps upstream connection.

As part of the Connect America Fund, broadband providers are given taxpayer money to improve and expand their networks to areas where service is lacking. How should the Fund balance incentives between network expansions and providing Americans with the best possible infrastructure?