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Senate Commerce Panel Mulls Broadband Speed Benchmarks

Law360 (March 18, 2021, 6:38 PM EDT) — In a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, rural broadband experts sparred over whether the Federal Communications Commission should raise the threshold of internet speed subsidized by federal funding programs, with one witness saying the agency could incentivize more “ambitious” service quality.

Christopher Ali, an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Media Studies, testified on Wednesday that the federal government could borrow a page from Minnesota’s state broadband strategy, which subsidizes providers that can offer internet speeds of a whopping 100 megabits per second download and 100 megabits per second upload.

“We need an ambitious and forward-looking definition of broadband… one that compels providers to abandon technologies like DSL and replace these wires with fiber or fiber-backed fixed wireless if they want to continue to receive federal and state support,” Ali said.

However, former Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly testified during the hearing — titled “Recent Federal Actions to Expand Broadband: Are We Making Progress?” — that the agency’s current standard for modern broadband, 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload, is “incredibly functional.”

Increasing the baseline internet speeds that are eligible for government subsidies would erase progress the FCC and other federal agencies have made in bringing rural America’s internet access on par with more urban counterparts, O’Rielly said, rendering areas that have already benefited from broadband deployment funds as eligible for support yet again. The result, he said, would waste government funds by incentivizing service improvements in areas that already have broadband while delaying deployment in areas where it’s still lacking.

“It doesn’t make sense to do that in terms of policy, because it will wipe out almost all of the work that the commission has done,” he told the committee.

Justin Forde, government relations director for Midwest cable provider Midco, said that raising broadband target speeds wouldn’t necessarily be productive for rural customers either. Midco serves entire households and farms with sufficient broadband speeds well below the 100/100 mbps threshold using a mix of fiber and wireless internet technologies, he said.

“All of those areas, if the speed changes, would now become eligible for federal funding. It’s important to remember that the speed is [already] here. It’s available and ready to go,” Forde said, noting that his customers’ wants and needs wouldn’t be “changed by a federal rule implemented in Washington, D.C.”

On the other hand, Ali asserted that broadband providers often build to the service standards set by the FCC and then stop, which he said doesn’t encourage providers to offer increasingly competitive options to their customers.

“I’m disappointed when a provider uses the 25/3 as a ceiling to meet rather than a floor to build upon,” he said. “I think a 100/100 definition would force providers to reconsider deployment strategies and would start to phase out, as we’re already seeing, some of these technologies that we know cannot meet the needs and uses of contemporary Americans, especially a country living, working, studying and communicating online.”

Committee leadership and the panel’s witnesses agreed on one point: that the FCC’s broadband mapping project must be sped up in any way possible.

The Commerce Committee’s ranking member Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said he’s “disappointed” with the FCC’s current one-year timeline for the project, which will incorporate $65 million allocated by the Broadband Data Act to retool the way that data concerning where broadband does and does not exist is amassed and displayed.

“Sen. [Maria] Cantwell and I want to know what we can do, what we can put on paper to have the president sign, that will help the FCC get this done quicker,” he said.

Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Commerce Committee, said that although the FCC estimates the mapping revamp won’t be completed until next year, the agency might be able to pull it off sooner.

“I did have a conversation with acting [FCC] Chair [Jessica] Rosenworcel, who intimated she thought this was a four-month answer to get on the mapping,” Cantwell said. “I think we should look at every avenue we have to get this data and information, including whatever the FCC is doing, or other ways.”

During a Wednesday press conference, Rosenworcel said she had a “productive conversation” with Cantwell but declined to confirm the four-month timeline.

–Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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