Loyal iPhone users are familiar with ever-rising standards: “bringing incredible speed to everything you do,” costing only a mere $1000, and minus the functionality of a headphone jack or charging port. And many customers do in fact find the faster speeds, higher definition cameras, and longer lasting batteries to be a good enough value add to offset the costs, even if they may be adding only marginal functionality.
Some people think broadband internet works the same—the higher the speeds can go, the higher they should, because the value add is worth it.
In fact, earlier this year the chairwoman of the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, proposed moving the definition of broadband from 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload (25/3) to 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload 100/20.
“The needs of internet users long ago surpassed the FCC’s 25/3 speed metric,” Rosenworcel said. “The 25/3 metric isn’t just behind the times, it’s a harmful one because it masks the extent to which low-income neighborhoods and rural communities are being left behind and left offline. That’s why we need to raise the standard for minimum broadband speeds now and while also aiming even higher for the future, because we need to set big goals if we want everyone everywhere to have a fair shot at 21st century success.”
The problem with this is that when a government agency decides what speed of broadband they want, they aren’t making a private consumer decision like iPhone aficionados, weighing the costs against the benefits. The FCC and other government entities making broadband policy are spending taxpayer money, and they have an obligation to use that money in a way which best serves the most people—that is, to use it for the common good.
And in this case, the common good would be focusing on equal access to the baseline delivered speed of broadband which is adequate for economically productive goods.
The argument made is that broadband contributes to the good of society, as it enables people to access education, health care, government services, and jobs from their homes. There is also evidence that broadband contributes positively to economic outcomes. It has a positive effect on overall GDP as well as GDP per household.
However, studies show that there are not increasing benefits with increasing broadband speeds. The FCC’s own analysis allows that most seemingly essential functions—accessing websites, email, streaming audio, video calls, VoIP calls, and social media—can be performed with less than 2 Mbps download speed. The narrative that ever-higher broadband speeds are necessary for essential functions of life, work, and school assumes an economic benefit as broadband speeds increase which is not supported by data.
This view treats broadband speeds—which the government has effectively regulatorily captured—like an iPhone, something with ever-increasing gadgetry which must be acquired even if it lacks true benefit, as a personal consumer decision.
It would be wiser and more effective to set a goal of ensuring equal access to the 25/3 speed at which economically productive tasks can be done, rather than promoting ever-higher speeds which will enable people to enjoy more entertainment or convenience but not necessarily be so productive as to promote the public good.
This is the model of government cheese: the Velveeta style blocks handed out in the 80s which many a parent has likely peddled tales of subsisting upon. Certainly, this is not the most gourmet, the most modern, or even the best available. But if everyone has access to this baseline, no one will starve from cheese deprivation, and those who desire Swiss or Gouda or Brie can make the choice to splurge on that with their personal dollars, and not on taxpayer dollars intended for the public good.