As the country continues to move towards recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband access is at the forefront of the agenda for policymakers in both the legislature and the White House. But amid government proposals to commit large sums of money to deployment, part of the broadband conversation has shifted towards speed.
Some are now calling for broadband to be defined as a connection offering symmetrical upload and download speeds at 100 Mbps, instead of the current asymmetrical standard of 25/3. While at first blush this sounds enticing, it is the wrong way to go at a time when so many communities still lack access to broadband. A decision to prioritize upgrading speeds for existing networks before connecting the unserved in rural America will deepen disparities for already vulnerable communities both during the pandemic and beyond.
Lawmakers’ primary focus should be on addressing the most profound disparities and connecting people – including the near 30% of people of color living in rural areas – who remain unserved, instead of upgrading service in areas that already have broadband. Long before COVID-19 forced millions to work and learn from home, it was clear that a broadband connection is not only a tool for participation in the digital economy but a pathway for marginalized populations to realize the full promise of the modern world. COVID-19 has exposed just how critical broadband connectivity is for redressing inequities in healthcare, employment, and economic opportunity, especially in rural communities where many lack access.
Perhaps the most acute of the pandemic’s consequences have been suffered by our nation’s students, especially those living in unserved areas. Even before the pandemic, the homework gap was particularly pronounced amongst rural students of color, and the longer these young people go without access to the Internet, the farther they will lag behind their fully connected peers. Now, as those same children are struggling to learn from full-time remote schooling, families are counting on the government to implement targeted solutions to close the digital divide.
Though upload speeds can be improved, there is little to no evidence that the benefit of a symmetrical mandate outweighs the need for investment in communities with no access. Recent data shows that downstream traffic–which includes video streaming–counts for 94% of total internet traffic in 2020, dwarfing upstream by comparison. Put plainly, the average consumer is downloading far more than they are uploading, even after the explosion in internet use resulting from the pandemic. Just as importantly, the vast majority of practical applications simply require far more modest upload speeds than the 100 Mbps that some are proposing.
In addition, according to a recent study by the Technology Policy Institute, setting a 100/100 standard for broadband speeds would immediately redefine nearly 2/3 of the country as unserved. Doing so would simply incentivize providers to take on the easier task of upgrading existing networks, rather than the more difficult and costly task of building new networks, to the profound detriment of those who would remain without service. As it stands today, over 80% of the country has 1Gbps down/35 Mbps up broadband available, far exceeding the proposed 100 downstream standard. And while 35 up is less than the proposed 100 upstream, it is more than enough to accommodate the average consumer. Yet customers with these impressive speeds would share the same designation as families struggling to get by with a tiny fraction of this service.
The definition of broadband is the standard by which the government decides where crucial subsidies will be allocated to build out networks. Getting it wrong could result in some of the wealthiest areas of the country, where consumers already enjoy excellent broadband service of 1Gbps/35 Mbps – places like Aspen, CO; Bethesda, MD; and Palm Beach, FL – being prioritized for these federal dollars because they lack 100/100 service, while those areas that are truly unserved are pushed to the back of the line.
The pandemic has made clear just how essential a broadband connection is, though there are still some among us who are struggling to work, learn, and receive care without one. Arbitrarily setting a symmetrical standard for speeds will keep these communities on the wrong side of the digital divide. To ensure that all households have equal access to the academic, economic, and social opportunities that the internet provides, policymakers should prioritize those who are completely without service rather than upgrading the networks of those who already have meaningful access to our online world.