tin cans connected by a data cable

Is the data you get on your smartphone fast and cheap enough to replace broadband internet service at home? Most of us would probably say no. But the Federal Communications Commission is now signaling they might just think it is.

The FCC last week launched its annual inquiry into broadband availability for the US. It’s an obligatory investigation into whether enough Americans are getting serviced with broadband-speed home internet in a “reasonable and timely fashion.” And if the inquiry finds they’re not, the FCC is on the hook for taking immediate steps to accelerate deployment by doing things like promoting infrastructure development and creating more competition.

During the Obama administration under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC determined that rural parts of the US were not getting serviced adequately. And last year, he expanded that outlook to say users require both home and mobile data as the two services have different capabilities and limitations.

But in last week’s inquiry, the FCC headed by Chairman Ajit Pai hinted they believe mobile data might just be good enough to qualify as broadband internet. This is despite the fact that average mobile speeds of 10Mbps downstream/1Mbps upstream fall well below the 25Mbps/3Mbps standard for broadband. If passed, this change in definition to coverage would mean most of the 19 million Americans (6 percent of the population) which the FCC previously said lacked access would suddenly count as covered.

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The FCC took that very first step toward redefining coverage in a Notice of Inquiry posted on August 8th. And the inquiry poses the question, if Americans are increasingly relying on their smartphones to do more of their internet-required tasks, why not just assume mobile data is good enough to meet our needs?

“The increase in mobile edge content demonstrates how Americans are increasingly using mobile broadband to achieve advanced telecommunications capability,” the FCC wrote in the notice. “Mobile applications and websites provide “high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications,” including text messaging, email, social networking, and video recording and viewing to those with a robust enough broadband connection.”

The inquiry goes on to invite the public to submit initial comments through September 7th and at the time of this writing, over 900 comments have been submitted. Many comments hit on certain recurring themes, pointing out the inherent differences between mobile and home internet that make them unsuitable to be evaluated analogously. For instance, not only is mobile data much slower, it often comes with data caps and expensive pricing schemes that make conducting business on them impossible. Some also wrote that lowering the standards for broadband only benefits internet service providers and let’s them shirk their responsibility to bring reasonable broadband service to rural or less profitable areas.

You can submit your own comment on proceeding 17-199 by going here and clicking the “+ Express” link on the left.

Kelly Paik
Kelly Paik writes about science and technology for Fanvive. When she's not catching up on the latest innovations, she uses her free-time painting and roaming to places with languages she can't speak. Because she rather enjoys fumbling through cities and picking things on the menu through a process of eeny meeny miny moe.