It took nearly six months, but the Federal Communications Commission has finally conceded that having a smartphone with a data plan is not the same thing as having high-speed internet at home.
I’ve talked to dozens of Americans who don’t have access to broadband internet at home, and while cell service can be handy, it’s far from the same thing. But in August, the FCC proposed conflating the two by redefining its standards to include mobile services—as in using your phone's data plan to access the internet—in its definition of "broadband access." In other words, if this change was made, using your phone would be considered just as good as having high-speed fiber to your door.
Along with barely making any sense, this would seriously overrepresent the number of Americans who actually had internet access, making it harder for many of those communities to get assistance fixing the problem. Multiple consumer rights groups—and some members of the FCC—criticized this proposal.
“It seems antithetical to all the other efforts we’re doing,” Deb Socia, the executive director of Next Century Cities, a coalition of municipalities aimed at expanding local broadband access, told me last month. “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.”
Fortunately, on Thursday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai released a statement and fact sheet ahead of the agency’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report that made it seem like he got the message.
“Mobile services are not full substitutes for fixed services—there are salient differences between the two technologies,” Pai’s fact sheet reads. “Because fixed services and mobile services are not full substitutes, it is important to evaluate progress in deploying fixed broadband service as well as progress in deploying mobile broadband service.”
The release also notes that the existing definition of what counts as broadband internet—a minimum of 25 Mbps download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds—will remain in tact. However it also emphasizes the need to analyze mobile services as well as fixed broadband, and says the report takes a "holistic approach." It's unclear what that will look like (Motherboard will update this story if we get a clear answer from the FCC) but hopefully, since the Chair himself says they're not the same thing, it won't mean conflating the two services.