We wouldn’t blame you if you’ve ignored the latest FCC headlines—alphabet agencies are a good way to buzzkill your morning reading—but the news might affect your life this time, and the overall story is more interesting than the headlines.
The News in One Sentence: Congress is calling on the FCC to dramatically increase the minimum broadband speeds required by law for internet service providers (ISPs).
Recent History: Since 2015, the FCC’s broadband standard is 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up. The last update was in 2010, so we were already “due for” an update last year… and that didn’t even take COVID’s effects into account.
The New Standard: If the FCC adopts this (bipartisan) proposal, the minimum for broadband service would become 100Mbps down and 100Mbps up. That’s 4x on down speeds and a massive 33x jump for up speeds (because everyone needs video conferencing now).
What’s the FCC Again? That’s the Federal Communications Commission. Their job is basically to make sure that everyone has fair access to communications services like phone and internet. They don’t police the internet itself, but they do make sure that you have fair service options for connecting to it.
What’s the Digital Divide? It’s essentially the line between “people who can experience the full power of the Internet Age” and “people who can’t.” The main issue here is geography, or more precisely, population density; urban and metro areas see download speeds as high as 2Gbps, but you’ll be way closer to the FCC minimums in rural and remote areas (and the minimum isn’t even strong enough for one person on a Zoom call).
Perhaps you fail to see the problem because you think we’re talking about a tiny sliver of the population—like, if the problems are in thinly-populated areas, doesn’t that mean it affects a small minority of people?
No, because it’s easy to forget how freaking huge this country is. Even if metro areas have 100x the population density, rural areas match their headcounts by being 100x as big. So this issue affects a lot of people.
Why Is the FCC Involved? Telecom is one vertical where the free market doesn’t regulate itself very well. ISPs provide competitive service in urban areas because they have clear incentives to do so; with so many people in one spot, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. But by the same logic, ISPs hate rural areas; it’s a ton more infrastructural work to serve way fewer people (see the 80/20 thing happening here?).
Two or three decades ago, this issue might have seemed like Theatre of the Legally Absurd — we picture a salty libertarian saying Why is Congress worried about AOL on the Aleutian Islands? — but by now broadband is every citizen’s lifeline to the world and, last we checked, the American way was to leave no one behind.