AT&T looks at definition of broadband: are they looking forward enough for everyone?

A recent AT&T blog looks at broadband speeds, policy and funding. I’m going to jump to what I think is the purpose of the post…

While the pandemic has redefined connectivity demands, those demands are not uniform, and the economics of serving every household in the country will require reliance on multiple technology solutions.  Policymakers seeking to re-define modern broadband speeds should take into consideration technological capabilities, economic considerations, geographic characteristics and affordability concerns.  Getting the definition right is critical to ensuring that broadband dollars are effectively targeted to where they are needed most.

They are right – getting the definition right is critical. But it reminds me of the old adage, never ask your barber if you need a haircut. Or more apt here, don’t ask car companies about seat belt laws.

Of course AT&T and other providers should chime in with their technical expertise and of course they are entitled to their educated opinions – but at the end of the day – they are selling something and we are buying – and as a country we are spending lots of money – so much money that don’t need to buy off the shelf. It’s our job as customers to tell them what we want and need.

I think a top consideration when spending government money is investment. Are we building solutions that will last or will they become outdated immediately? Are we renting this space or do we own it? We want to own it; we want to make decisions like we’re not moving next year.

It’s one of the best things about the MN Broadband Border to Border grants. They only fund projects that are scalable to 100 Mbps symmetrical. That doesn’t mean it needs to scale tomorrow – but it needs to scale eventually.

The AT&T blog recognizes that 25/3 (current federal definition of broadband) is too slow…

Let’s turn first to the definitional problem.  The pandemic has broadened the consensus opinion that it’s time to revisit the FCC’s current broadband definition of 25/3 Mbps.  To be clear, service at that speed is sufficient to support zoom working and remote learning.  According to Zoom’s website, a group call using high quality video requires speeds of 1 Mbps up / 600 kbps down.

But we know zooming isn’t the only thing users have been doing during quarantine and most homes now need to support multiple streams. Sandvine reports that video, gaming and social media together consumed 80% of total network capacity during 2020, with Netflix alone accounting for 11% of global traffic.  That traffic profile demands significant download performance.  For example, Netflix recommends speeds of at least 5Mbps down for HD video streaming, and 25Mbps down to stream in 4K for optimum quality viewing.

When zooming, streaming and tweeting is combined in an average household of four, it’s easy to conclude that download speeds must increase.  Notably, the results of the recent FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction tilted toward players bidding in the 100/20 Mbps or better service tiers, with gigabit bids winning approximately 85% of all locations.

What is less clear is whether we need to increase upload speeds to the same level as download speeds for the purpose of defining “unserved” areas.  A definition built on symmetrical speeds could dramatically expand the locations deemed “unserved”, leading to some areas being unnecessarily overbuilt while leaving fewer dollars to support areas in greater need, which tend to be rural.

For reasons, I explained last week when the MN Legislature looked at including “wireless” networks to state goals, changing the definition of unserved/underserved/served only changes the definition. It doesn’t impact the household. You can call me anything you want, but if I can’t get broadband, I’m going to be calling my provider and if necessary my legislator to complain. We can’t artificially keep the definition low just to keep our stats up. It just deepens the divide between served and unserved and in this context it most often means rural versus urban and suburban.

In a recent letter from senators asking President Biden to reevaluate broadband speeds with an eye to 100/100, they mention average speeds in urban and suburban areas…

While we recognize that in truly hard-to-reach areas, we need to be flexible in order to reach unserved Americans, we should strive to ensure that all members of a typical family can use these applications simultaneously. There is no reason federal funding to rural areas should not support the type of speeds used by households in typical well-served urban and suburban areas (e.g., according to speedtest.net’s January 2021 analysis, average service is currently 180Mbps download/65Mbps upload with 24 millisecond latency.

Those are average so they include the single person watching Netflix, they include the family of five with three going to school and two working and watching Netflix. There’s no reason government funding should go to build networks in rural areas that wouldn’t meet the needs of the average household in urban and suburban areas. COVID may have pushed the use disproportionately in the last year, but it also opened doors that won’t be closing again. To invest wisely, we need to consider these numbers and look at a linear growth based on it, but prepare for nonlinear growth too, because now we know a new world of possible pandemics. And that makes broadband, not a problem, but a life-saving, livelihood-saving, sanity-saving tool.

This entry was posted in Digital Divide, Policy, Vendors by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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