The FCC’s Next Attack: Reclassifying Mobile Data As “Broadband Internet”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s corrupt and undemocratic repeal of net neutrality Title II protections last month (led by former Verizon lawyer and current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, pictured left) dealt a major, shattering blow to internet freedom, but it’s only the first in a series of actions intent on pursuing the end goal of complete blind deregulation of federal and state oversight of Big Telecom. Next step: expanding the definition of high-speed broadband internet to include mobile phone service, which the FCC will use to disingenuously portray America’s broadband situation as being much better than it actually is.

This idea to reclassify smartphone data as broadband was first proposed in August, but with net neutrality regulations no longer impeding the way, the FCC is expected to vote on the proposal by February 3.

In a “Notice of Inquiry,” a public comment step often taken ahead of rule changes, the FCC proposes that both fixed and mobile can be counted as broadband under Section 706 of its rules. That differs from the current standard, developed under the previous chairman, Tom Wheeler, that requires timely deployment of both wired and wireless networks in the US.

Even further, the FCC has brazenly suggested that if mobile data service is providing this “broadband,” the minimum standards of 10Mbps download and 1Mbps upload speeds are sufficiently fast enough. That’s less than half of the FCC’s minimum requirements of 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload speeds to meet the definition of a “broadband” connection. At the same time, the Notice of Inquiry proposes to leave wired home speeds at the current level.

This proposal would not only hide many US communities currently without internet access, but could prevent them from getting necessary funding to build that access. Mobile data service is often slower, more expensive, less reliable, and usually comes with a limited data allowance and speed throttling; even tethering to share a cell phone’s internet access isn’t a long-term solution, especially for households with multiple people competing over bandwidth as they simultaneously try to do homework, interact on social media, work, and watch online streaming videos.

The FCC claims the “statutory language” bestows to it the right to scoop up mobile, wireless, and land transmission into one broadband basket. Section 706, it says, defines advanced telecommunications tech “as high-speed, switched, broadband that enables users to original and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics and video telecommunications … without regard to any transmission media or technology.”

Noting that 13 percent of Americans rely solely on cell phone data for internet access, the FCC announced it was seeking comment “on whether we should evaluate the deployment of fixed and mobile broadband as separate and distinct ways to achieve advanced telecommunications capability.”

“We seek comment on whether to deem an area as ‘served’ if mobile or fixed service is available. I am skeptical of this line of inquiry. Consumers who are mobile only often find themselves in such a position, not by choice but because they cannot afford a fixed connection.”

Yet, mobile networks often don’t suit the needs of consumers and businesses because of highly variable speeds, data caps, lack of free and unlimited tethering, and other issues. And with the recent net neutrality repeal, it could further curtail consumer access to data-hungry services like Netflix and YouTube.

Tom Wheeler’s FCC changed broadband requirements to the 25Mbps/3Mbps standard from 4 Mbps/1Mbps upload/download speeds back in 2015. One reason for that was the shameful fact that the US ranked a dismal 25th out of 39 developed countries in internet speeds at the time. Since the new standard was put in place, data rates have increased markedly, and America is now ranked 10th in the world for broadband internet — though that strongly depends on which state you live in.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn (watch her passionate, powerful dissent against the net neutrality repeal before the FCC vote in video on right) doesn’t agree with the proposals suggested in the Notice of Inquiry. “We seek comment on whether to deem an area as ‘served’ if mobile or fixed service is available,” she wrote in a concurring statement.

“I am skeptical of this line of inquiry. Consumers who are mobile only often find themselves in such a position, not by choice but because they cannot afford a fixed connection.”

She adds that the US should also be pushing faster internet speeds, not keeping the standard the same. “High-definition video conferencing is squarely within the rubric of ‘originating and receiving high-quality video telecommunications,’ ” she writes, “yet the 25/3 Mbps standard we propose would not even allow for a single stream of 1080p video conferencing, much less 4K video conferencing.”

Though the process to change these definitions is not as formal as what was required to roll back net neutrality rules, the Notice of Inquiry still provided an opportunity for the public to comment last summer, with a closing deadline of September 22. As of January 3, the FCC comment form still appears to be online and working, with 5 filings in the last 30 days and comments with a post date as late as December 22.

Here is the link to leave a comment on the FCC’s Notice of Inquiry; you can do so by clicking on the “express filing” link. If the link has stopped working, you can fill out a generic express filing form here; the “Proceedings” is Docket 17-199. Please make sure to use your real name and email address, as incomplete or fraudulent filings are often used as an excuse to discard genuine submissions.

The FCC did a notoriously lousy job of handling the posted comments about net neutrality, with a criminal investigation into millions of fraudulent comments posted under stolen identities opened by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, for which the FCC has refused to turn over key evidence.

In January, the group Next Century Cities launched a campaign called #MobileOnly, challenging people to spend one single day in the month using only their cell phone data for internet access — no laptops, no computers, and no Wi-Fi. Both Democratic commissioners on the FCC, Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, are participating in the action.

“Promoting deployment of mobile broadband services alone is not sufficient to bridge digital divides in underserved rural and urban communities,” Clyburn said in a press release for the campaign. “By standing together through this movement, we will demonstrate why it is so essential for all Americans to have access to a robust fixed broadband connection.”