Blog: Do We Need 1000 Units of "Broadbandium"

Government guidelines say access to 25 units of broadbandium is essential for our daily diets.  Most people have this access and have followed these guidelines for years.  After heavy lobbying by broadbandium manufacturers, however, lawmakers suddenly change the guidelines, determining that access to 1000 units of broadbandium is now “optimal” for all Americans to use.

Almost all urban areas have access to 1000 units.  Because it is expensive to ship 1000 units beyond urban centers, though, rural access is limited.  Consequently, lawmakers determine that this broadbandium divide is inequitable – all Americans regardless of where they live need access to 1000 units of broadbandium to live “optimally,” whether they use it or not.  To rectify this, they earmark $20 billion to deliver 1000-unit shipments of broadbandium out to the hinterlands. 

Interestingly, use studies show few people – rural or urban – choose 1000 units of broadbandium where it’s offered.  Further independent research reveals that for the average user no clear benefits to health or prosperity can be identified from the 40-fold increase of broadbandium.  To the contrary, it shows that adoption of broadbandium at its 25-unit level provides the essential building blocks to thrive; and that if change is needed, lawmakers would do well to focus on factors that boost adoption at its base level rather than increase amount of use.    

Now that seems like a ridiculous story, but in the Internet space we’re in the midst of a similar marketing blitz. If you listen to the special interests you’d hear them tell Americans that if they don’t have the fastest internet currently possible, you simply don’t have Internet access at all. 

Whether it’s combating the pandemic, or eradicating the digital divide, or simply to “future proof” our networks for broadband “leadership,” those pushing top-speed connectivity have gone on an all-out marketing war to get billions-upon-billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize the build-out of a gold-plated solution.  If we don’t get it, they intone, Americans might as well be communicating with tin cans and string.

We know that isn’t true.

Today’s networks are built to evolve, from those that serve the rural hinterlands, to networks delivering service to urban hubs.  They grow, expand and progress, scaling to meet the needs of the markets they serve through an immense variety of transmission technologies and speeds.

This primarily privately funded development has made U.S. Internet connectivity nearly universal.  According to the FCC, approximately 95% of America has access to fixed broadband – something it currently defines as 25mbps to the customer, and 3mbps back to the internet (or 25/3).  Though nearly 20 million Americans have Internet access but lack “broadband,” deployment and adoption improves each year, with nearly 99% of all American homes having access to at least one fixed broadband network today.  So where’s the beef?

The FCC’s current standard generally meets the average family’s needs.  It is a baseline.  Congress’ independent research arm – the Government Accountability Office (GAO) - suggests that homework, streaming videos, and video chats can all be accomplished with service in the area of 25+mbps.  For small businesses, it suggests that 50+mbps is appropriate.  And for libraries or other public anchor institutions, 100+mbps works. 

You’ll notice no call from the GAO for the 1000mbps, multi-lane, superhighway.  That’s because the services we use on a daily basis are pretty efficient. 

Typical Internet speed needs for a single user are a far cry from a gigabit.   

The lobbyists for the television and cable internet industry at the NCTA exclaim that “America is Now a Gigabit Nation,” noting that “the majority of U.S. households—80 percent—can now receive gigabit service from their cable internet provider.”  That’s about 260 million individuals.  At the same time, however, Microsoft states that 157 million Americans, or nearly half of the country, do not use Internet even at FCC-defined broadband speeds (25/3).  Taken together, it’s clear that the adoption of gigabit services lags far behind its supposed availability.    
Some local gigabit providers, such as the Chattanooga’s EPB network, know this firsthand.  Though they market 1000mbps fiber services at $80 per month, to date, just 17% of their customers have chosen to use gigabit – a service they’ve been heavily marketing for more than a decade. The ISP exclaimed that stymied uptake is largely the result of users not knowing “what to do with it.”  That’s likely because, as says, “Speeds [are] dramatically higher than [the] average subscriber needs.”  
Faster-equals-better reasoning does not seem to play out in the real world.  Research conducted by a group of Purdue economists recently concluded that “broadband access, advertised or actual speeds, has a limited effect on labor productivity [a core creator of economic prosperity] at the county level.”  In their view, access to symmetrical gigabit service played an insignificant role, with adoption measures being more important to pursue from a policy standpoint than other measures, such as speed.
Does the average man, woman or child need 1000 units of broadbandium or 1000 megabits of broadband?
They could.  But why use billions of taxpayer dollars to force the market to give consumers something “dramatically higher than [the] average subscriber needs” and foreclose innovation and adoption?
Cutting to the chase – combating COVID, bridging digital divides or boosting U.S. tech leadership depends little on whether one particular technology or another is available.  The speed war hype and all the pressure points behind it are designed merely to have the government pick up the tab for bets the special interests won’t take themselves.  And those bets are risky.
But there is another path: One that recognizes consumer needs and provides stepping stones that evolve with how consumers actually use the internet.
Policymakers can help advance the broadband marketplace by:
  • Fostering an environment where innovation can thrive, inviting the widest array of solutions to the table, not narrowing them with needless technological mandates. Prefer speed to market for a minimum viable product, not a gold-plated network that will take years to deploy, cost billions of dollars and may never be affordable or ultimately usable to the customers.
  • Getting localities that lack 25/3 online first with targeted subsidies which map to, evolve and can get adopted by users in those “unconnected” communities.
  • Helping small innovators reach hard to serve markets by improving access to infrastructure, including spectrum; liberalizing access to private and public capital; and eliminating outdated or burdensome rules which hold them back.
  • And, focusing on the actual delivery of USEABLE services by recognizing that speeds bear little relationship with how we thrive, stay safe and adopt the Internet.
Getting Americans on the Internet and productively using it should be our main focus, not how “fast” they can go.  The evolving marketplace provides a useful roadmap to accomplish this.  Ignoring its signposts, however, will undermine the battle for connectivity and adoption.  We should focus on speed to deploy useable, affordable services to those Americans who do not have the Internet instead of conflating speed of service with our overall wellbeing in a misguided and costly proposition American lawmakers must avoid.

Byline: Mike Wendy, Director of Communications, WISPA