By Kieren McCarthy in San Francisco, Dec 11, 2018 | Original article from The Register here.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should be paid to provide slower internet speeds to poor people. That’s the extraordinary upshot of a meeting between an ISP industry group and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US.
In a letter recording a meeting between the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) and the legal advisors to two FCC commissioners, the industry group "emphasized that the Commission’s goals would be better served by directing support to areas that lack any service at all and those that have access only below 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up."
The current definition of broadband is 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up. That was introduced in 2015 and replaced an older, outdated definition of 10Mbps down and 1Mbps up. But in order to meet its own broadband rollout targets, the current FCC has been trying to find ways to lower the 25/3 Mbps requirement.
It initially launched an effort to backtrack from the current definition by equating mobile and fixed broadband’
Then it tried to redefine broadband as the average speed used by consumers in specific areas.
That fudge failed after an outcry.
So last month, the FCC proposed a different solution:
. . . using its subsidy program for low-income households as a way to get around its current definition by expanding subsidies to ISPs offering only 10/1 Mbps.
But even that is not sufficient for ISPs, who have asked to be paid to offer even slower internet speeds.
"WISPA supports the Commission’s goal that all consumers nationwide, including in rural areas, should ultimately have access to 25/3 Mbps service. However, WISPA believes that, in this instance, the Commission has not yet allowed the unsubsidized market to mature sufficiently, and threatens private investment in areas that would have no service but for the presence of an unsubsidized provider."
Welcome to 2010 . . .
In other words: you should pay us to introduce internet speeds from 2010 — when the definition of broadband was raised to 4Mbps down and 1Mbps up. After all, something’s better than nothing for poor people.
This extraordinary race-to-the-bottom is the result of a number of different conflicting issues:
The FCC, under chair Ajit Pai, has made closing the Digital Divide a public priority while at the same time freeing broadband providers from oversight and regulation.
While claiming that providing fast internet access to underserved access is his biggest goal, Pai has gone out of his way to defund the FCC’s own subsidy program for low-income families: families who represent a significant percentage of those not online.
In an effort to square the circle and demonstrate growing broadband access, Pai has repeatedly tried to force through policy fudges, most centered on lowering or ignoring the definition of "broadband" speed.
The ISPs know that Pai is desperate to show progress in the provision of broadband – the FCC is required to send a report to Congress each year outlining how it has done in achieving exactly that goal — and so are trying to take advantage of his position by providing fake justifications for providing even slower — but much cheaper to provide — internet access.
Pai could of course do what his predecessor did and threaten to take ISPs to task for going slowly on the provision of broadband access. But that is antithetical to everything he stands for — Pai has done everything in his power to remove the FCC from regulatory oversight of ISPs under his notion of "light touch regulation."
WISPA argued at its meeting that
"government funds should be employed first to support a provider deploying service to a truly unserved or underserved area, not to promote competition among multiple providers in areas already receiving adequate service."
In a coded warning that it will stir up trouble for Pai in Congress, it notes: "Senators Thune and Klobuchar have openly talked about concerns with overbuilding. FCC Commissioners past and present have expressed concerns about government subsidies being distributed without sufficient regard to existing, unsubsidized broadband services."
To advocates of the US getting broadband deployment on the same lines as other advanced economies, the idea of the America being hampered by "overbuilding" is laughable. The US suffers under a market where a few large ISPs have used the regulatory environment to carve up the country into local monopolies where they are not subject to effective competition.
The Telcos also abuse the system for measuring broadband access to report far higher levels of broadband access and competition that exist in reality.
But after years of playing the system, there is little wiggle room left and the FCC will soon be asked to explain why broadband deployment is not growing. WISPA and other ISPs are banking on Pai’s FCC to be willing to distort the system even further in order to provide headline figures that make the situation look better than it is: Something that can only be achieved by providing low-speed internet and labeling it as high-speed.
And It doesn’t end there. The ISPs are pushing back against FCC staff efforts to measure internet speed by actually measuring users’ internet speed rather than relying on the ISPs own "advertised speed" as true. And they are unhappy about the FCC threatening to discount speeds that are too high in tests. Telcos are suspected of providing very fast internet speeds in certain areas for specific periods of time as a way to bump up the average speed.
Another letter to the FCC from WISPA as well as USTelecom and the Broadband Association (ITTA) complains about the "onerous and unsupported latency testing requirements" and basically asks for latency to be measured far less frequently. Even if you have a 100Mbps connection, if the latency is too high, it will feel like a slow connection, particularly if you are doing things like video conferencing or online gaming.
Anything under 100ms is fine. But start going over 300ms and it will impact performance significantly. The FCC’s staff know that this figure is a critical measure of internet speed and so have proposed making a critical component in deciding whether ISPs are compliant with FCC rules i.e. get subsidy money. The ISPs are, of course, complaining.
In short, American internet providers are determined to give its citizens the worst possible internet for the highest possible price and under industry-friendly chair Pai they are willing to state that publicly – while asking for taxpayers’ money to do so. WISPA have since come back to us with comment, which you can read in full here.
Wispa Complains About This Story
Yesterday, we wrote about a startling letter from ISP industry body WISPA to the FCC in which it advocated for slow internet speeds for rural areas and argued that the federal regulator’s "goals would be better served by directing support to areas that lack any service at all and those that have access only below 10/1 Mbps."
We called it an "extraordinary race-to-the-bottom" and argued that Wispa was effectively advocating that "poor people should get slower internet speeds."
Unsurprisingly, Wispa was not excited about our representation of its lobbying efforts but to his credit CEO of WISPA and former FCC staffer Claude Aiken called to explain his organization’s position.
His organization’s members are mostly "very small, very rural" companies headed up by people who were "frustrated by the lack of broadband" in their area and had decided to fix the issue, often to the extent of maxing out their credit cards to get a local ISP up and running.
Aiken’s issue with the FCC’s plan is not that it is insisting on broadband speeds of 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up in order to get federal funding but that
- Many of WISPA members are currently offering customers somewhere between 10/1 and 25/3; and
- The FCC has decided to put in billions in federal money to pay large Telcos to upgrade their current systems.
Or, in other words, in areas where Big Cable has done a poor job and offered 10/1 service or worse, those massive corporations will get subsidized to improve their network while Wispa’s small ISP clients are ineligible for the funding and will have to deal with additional government-funded competition in their market.
On the level
WISPA CEO, Claude Aiken: all he wants is a "level playing field."
"We’re objecting to taxpayer-funded entities being paid to enter the market — in a market where our members are already getting the job done."
Where we have a real problem with WISPA’s arguments to the FCC is where it advocated for the FCC to "direct support to areas that lack any service at all and those that have access only below 10/1 Mbps."
We also weren’t excited about the implicit threat that WISPA would complain to Congress about "overbuild" in order to put pressure on FCC’s chair Pai.
And we quoted back to Aiken what the then-FCC-chair Tom Wheeler said when he approved the current program back in 2014:
"We can’t connect millions in rural America who have been bypassed by the Internet revolution for too long and then offer them a second-rate online experience."
Wheeler insisted that the program be used to offer broadband internet and nothing else. Aiken’s argument is that if the government is going to pump billions into internet access, it should do so in the areas that have nothing, rather than boost the areas that have something. In other words, he’s standing up for his members.
In fact one of his members emailed us independently to complain that we had missed the point about lower speeds.
"The entire point here is that there are still a lot of people that have ZERO high speed options available. A lot of us have put our asses on the line to bring high speed to rural areas where there are no options. We’re selling 5, 10 and 20Mbps packages… [but]… we’d prefer to sell everyone 1,000 Mbps."
Instead, he argues, the FCC’s current approach will mean "AT&T will get federal money to run a more fiber to a city but we’re out here risking everything to bring actual, usable Internet to people in the sticks."