The FCC's Next Stunt: Reclassifying Cell Phone Data Service as 'Broadband Internet'

The agency is expected to make this change in February, which will make America's broadband situation look better than it actually is.
Image: US Department of Agriculture

The Federal Communications Commission’s decision last week to repeal net neutrality was a major blow to internet freedom, but it’s only the first in a long line of actions that the FCC will take to tell itself that America’s broadband situation is better than it actually is. Up next: redefining high speed wired internet to include cell phone service. Because, according to FCC chair Ajit Pai, that’s totally the same thing.


This idea to reclassify smartphone data as broadband was first proposed in August, but with the net neutrality repeal out of the way, the FCC is expected to vote on the proposal by February 3. Currently, the FCC defines broadband connection as 25Mbps download speeds and 3Mbps upload speeds minimum. The new proposal would keep these minimums in place for fixed wireline broadband but also expand the definition to include cell phone data coverage.

This would not only camouflage many of the communities in the US with no access to the internet, but could prevent them from getting necessary funding to build that access. Cell service is often slower, more expensive, and comes with data caps, and even tethering a computer to a phone for internet isn’t a long-term solution, especially for families with multiple people trying to log on at once to do homework, or work, or watch Netflix.

“It seems antithetical to all the other efforts we’re doing,” said Deb Socia, the executive director of Next Century Cities, a coalition of municipalities aimed at expanding local broadband access. “I spent a good part of my life as a teacher and a principal. If I had a classroom full of children that included a lot of failing students, I wouldn’t change my standards [to increase the number of passing grades,] I’d change the intervention.”

Though the process to change these definitions is not as formal as what was required to roll back net neutrality rules, there was still an opportunity for groups to comment this summer, and if there’s enough public backlash, it could potentially meet a different fate. Like net neutrality, it ultimately just comes down to the FCC to make the decision, but groups like Next Century Cities are hoping to hold the agency’s feet to the fire in the meantime.

In January, the group is launching a campaign called #MobileOnly, challenging people to spend one day in the month using only their cell phone data for internet access—no laptops, no computers, and no Wi-Fi. It’s a challenge that’s so unappealing I refuse to even entertain the idea, but it’s one that millions of Americans will be left with as an only option if these broadband definitions are changed. Socia herself will be doing the challenge, as will the two Democrat commissioners on the FCC, Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel.

“Promoting deployment of mobile broadband services alone is not sufficient to bridge digital divides in underserved rural and urban communities,” Clyburn said in a press release for the campaign. “By standing together through this movement, we will demonstrate why it is so
essential for all Americans to have access to a robust fixed broadband connection.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the #MobileOnly challenge was month-long, but participants are asked to pick just one day to take part.