Will Rural Republicans Put Party Over Constituents On Rural Broadband?

(This largely reprints an op ed printed in The Daily Yonder on August 31, 2017. It has been updated to reflect the efforts of Senate Democrats to delay the FCC’s proposal.)

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai has made talking about the “digital divide” between rural communities and urban communities a top priority. In the few months since Pai took over, he has gone on numerous road trips , appearing with rural Senators such as John Thune (R-SD) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) to highlight his deep concern for rural Americans. Pai likes to talk about his rural Kansas roots, and has gone so far as to declare August “rural broadband month”

Unfortunately, for all his Kansas roots, Chairman Pai has hit on a uniquely Washington answer to the very real problem of getting affordable, high speed broadband to every American: re-define the term “broadband” to make the problem go away. That’s great for the big broadband companies that like things as they are, and for the inside the Beltway think tanks that openly question whether pushing for rural broadband is worth the cost. But Americans who actually live in rural areas with poor broadband connectivity need real solutions, not regulatory games.

How We Know If There Is A “Digital Divide:” The FCC’s Annual Report.

Every year, the law requires the FCC to issue a report on whether “advanced telecommunications capabilities” is being deployed to “all Americans.” The FCC treats mobile services as different from cable, DSL or other services that run to the home. The FCC reasons that people use direct to the home services and mobile services very differently. For technical reasons, wireline services like cable or fiber or DSL work faster and more reliably than mobile services. So even though some people rely exclusively on mobile broadband (largely because they can’t afford both a wireline and a wireless subscription), the vast majority of Americans own both mobile devices and have a wireline subscription at home.

At the moment, the FCC defines home “broadband” as providing 25 mbps down and 3 mbps up (“25/3”). Many communities can only get that speed from a cable provider – assuming they have one that serves their communities. If you don’t have a home broadband provider that offers those speeds in your community, then the FCC reports that your neighborhood doesn’t have access to “advanced telecommunications services” (the technical term the statute uses). If the FCC discovers that certain identifiable groups of people, like rural Americans, don’t have access to broadband that meets the standard, then the law requires the FCC to take steps to ensure that those left behind get the access they need.

Pai’s Proposal: Lower the Standard For Broadband So We Can Say Everyone Has Access.

In preparation for this year’s broadband report, Chairman Pai’s FCC has proposed a number of changes that will make it much easier for Pai to claim he “solved” the rural broadband problem. First, Pai promises not to lower the standard for wireline broadband, allowing him to claim that he is not changing the definition. But Pai also proposes that instead of treating wireline and wireless as different products that all Americans need, Pai proposes to count mobile access through smart phones as being just as good as having a home wireline service. So if you have mobile service available in your area, you just went from having no broadband access to having lots of broadband choices.

If Pai proposed only to count wireless broadband that met the same speed and quality standard as wireline, this might make sense. While there are differences between how people use mobile broadband v. their home connection (and problems with the reliability of mobile broadband), what matters is getting people the access they need to do their jobs and do their homework. But Pai explicitly proposes to lower the standard for wireless. To quote from the FCC proposal: “We anticipate that any speed benchmark we set would be lower than the 25 Mbps/3 Mbps benchmark adopted for fixed broadband services, given differing capabilities of mobile broadband.”

In other words, despite explicitly acknowledging that mobile networks can’t offer the same kind of broadband speed or reliability as cable or DSL, the FCC proposes to treat having a mobile phone as the same as having access to real broadband. The Order proposes to lower the standard to 10 mbps down/1 mbps up, but invites comment on whether even that is to high a standard to expect from mobile broadband.

As if this didn’t play enough games with numbers to make the rural broadband problem disappear, Pai also proposes changes to the definition of area served. Relying on filings from broadband industry trade associations, Pai’s proposal asks whether to change other aspects of the definition, such as the definition of service area, to make it easier to find that broadband is being deployed, in the words of the Communications Act, “to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

What does this mean in plain English? It means that if you can get a mobile signal on the Interstate, you have broadband. Problem solved! Chairman Pai can issue his next report claiming to have solved the rural broadband problem. The cable and telephone companies can continue to offer slow broadband at high prices – or simply avoid rural America altogether. A perfect solution for everyone who doesn’t have to live with the consequences.

Rural America Needs Real Broadband, Not Fake Solutions.

In the last 15 years, broadband has gone from a luxury to a basic necessity, like electricity. It long ago replaced 20th Century phone service as the way we do business, shop, or just talk to family and friends. People in cities often ask why anyone in rural areas need broadband at all, let alone dependable high speed broadband. For example, Jeff Eisenach, the former Verizon consult and Competitive Enterprise Institute Scholar who headed up the Trump Administration’s FCC Transition Team after the election, has said that rural areas can make do just fine with existing broadband satellite and wireless services, and has opposed efforts by local communities to build their own broadband systems, even where private companies won’t build out. Despite numerous newspaper articles and stories explaining the crisis of broadband in rural American, the view from downtown D.C. often boils down to ‘how much broadband can folks in rural America possibly need? Don’t they have iPhones already?”

Where Are The Rural Republicans To Reign in FCC Chairman Pai?

Both Democrats and Republicans have made it clear that the lack of affordable, reliable high speed broadband remains a major problem for rural America. In a bipartisan letter sent last April, 56 Senators wrote Chairman Pai that: “we are still hearing frustration about the prices for and the availability of standalone broadband. Many operators remain unable or unwilling to offer such broadband because their prices would still be unreasonably high even after the reforms.” Playing games with the definition of broadband won’t change that basic reality. Senators and Representatives from rural America need to make it clear that they expect the FCC to come up with real solutions for the rural digital divide.

So far, however, only Democrats have stepped up to pushback on Chairman Pai’s proposal. Pai initially released his proposal August 8, and required the public to file comments by September 7 (and reply comments by September 22). With nearly everyone away for the summer holidays, this tight timeline would have prevented rural stakeholders from effectively weighing in against the proposal. On August 31, 12 Senate Democrats sent a letter to Chairman Pai and his fellow Commissioners asking them to delay the comment deadline 30 days. In the letter, the Democratic Senators also outlined why they considered the proposal so damaging to rural America. “By redefining what it means to have access,” the Democratic letter warned, “the FCC could abandon further efforts to connect Americans, as under this definition, its statutory requirement would be fulfilled.”

In response, the FCC granted an extension of two weeks, rather than the month requested by Congressional Democrats. To have real impact, Republicans as well as Democrats must join together to make it clear that Washington business as usual is not acceptable.

No member of Congress likes to publicly criticize members of their own party. It is therefore understandable that Congressional Republicans would be reluctant to publicly pushback against Pai’s proposal. But it is the job of every Senator and Representative to speak up for her state or district. Republicans — particularly those from rural states and rural districts — need to make it clear to the Chairman of the FCC that this isn’t about claiming a win for the press but about making sure all Americans get to take part in our digital future. That means finding ways to get broadband deployed in rural areas, not ways to define the problem away.

Rural Communities Need To Speak Up If They Want Real Broadband.

Rural communities need to make themselves heard – at the FCC and in Congress. When the trade press reported Pai’s proposal hundreds of rural Americans filed comments denouncing the plan. Unfortunately, Chairman Pai has shown little interest in what the average American has to say. Chairman Pai has packed his Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee with broadband company employees and made it clear he doesn’t think much of “non-substantive” public comments.

That’s why rural Americans who care about getting real broadband not only need to file at the FCC (follow this link here, the docket number is 17-199), but also need to contact their Senators and members of Congress. Members of Congress from both parties have made it clear to the FCC that rural Americans continue to lack choices for affordable broadband that meets their needs.

Members of the public have until October 6 to file comments with the FCC.

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