Broadband Plan Needs a Lighter Touch
Democratic legislatures and the Biden Administration are correct to focus on closing the so-called “digital divide”—a phenomenon that describes the disparity of those without broadband access. But propping up artificial competition, using European public-utility models, and having highly prescriptive technical mandates to achieve this goal have shown to widen the divide than close it. Last week’s House Appropriations hearing demonstrates democratic members’ disconnect with the facts while pushing the Biden broadband plan. The data shows that a complete government overhaul over broadband is not only unnecessary but also antithetical to their goals here.
The democrats intend to have the government serve a competitor to private carriers. Outside of the constitutionality of such strategies, this will ultimately cost American taxpayers more money because they will have to pay more for government-run networks. Despite what democrats claim, the data show that the average prices for broadband are about 13% higher in cities with a government-run network than in those without.
Democrats also want to treat broadband as a public utility, like in the E.U. However, the U.S., by using its deregulatory approach, significantly leads the European Union in broadband deployment. Moreover, the U.S. produces twice the facilities-based competition than that of the E.U. In January, the Federal Communications Commission put out a report stating that 95.6% of Americans have at least baseline broadband (i.e., 25/3 Mbps). The data shows exactly this as the U.S. built out significantly more broadband infrastructure in rural areas than the EU by more than 20 points at 30 Mbps. These points clearly demonstrates that E.U.’s highly regulated strategy is inferior to that of the U.S.’s.
At the hearing, democratic legislatures even pushed for monopoly-style regulation on ISPs under Title II of the Communications Act. However, to invoke monopoly regulation for broadband services, they must demonstrate that there exists a monopoly. Currently, there are about 7,000 ISPs in the U.S. This is a far cry away from there being a monopoly in this economic space. In fact, there’s a better legal argument to hold platforms under Title II than ISPs at this point.
Most problematic, democrats seem adamant in adopting President Biden’s “future proof” mandate that inadvertently changes the definition of broadband to 100/100 megabits per second (Mbps). This speed is simply unnecessary given today’s commercial demands. Even the Obama-era FCC agreed that, at most, all anyone would need is 25/3 Mbps to perform every contemporary internet use. Arguably, a person would only need about 5 to 10 mbps to stream high-definition shows and movies, engage on social media, or perform general web browsing. This extreme measure is simply unwarranted.
Worse, the more practical consequences of changing the definition of broadband to 100/100 Mbps is having the government favor fiber-only deployments over all other technologies. This departs from our tried-and-true tech-neutral approach to broadband deployment. Moreover, requiring symmetrical speeds, such as 100/100 mbps, over fiber will deter investment in mobile, fixed-wireless, and satellite solutions that can provide sufficient service in the short term. This can significantly hurt those in rural areas given their landscape.
Under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC recognized the difficulty in favoring one deployment strategy over another due to these areas’ complex landscapes. For example, rural farmers applying precision agriculture techniques requires uninterrupted service to ensure their applications work. This means that they would need coverage for hundreds or thousands of square acres to reach not only their homes, but also the accessory buildings that may be housing the servers and the myriad farm equipment that operate off the network to remotely harvest grain, sow seeds, etc.
The recognition of these challenges is why the Trump Administration took a tech-neutral approach to broadband access. The previous Administration realized that leveraging cost-efficient wireless technologies in tandem with cable-based deployments yielded better results. Given that deploying fiber generally costs about $6 per foot, providing coverage for the average farmer becomes infeasible using Biden’s fiber-only strategy.
The data weighs heavily against the Democrats’ plan and, in fact, indicates that our current deregulatory approach on broadband infrastructure is the appropriate way forward. Unfortunately, their plan as written will only widen the divide.