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The FCC Is Hinting it Might Change its Rules to Hide America’s Digital Divide

August 9, 2017

FCC chairman Ajit Pai has a theory. He believes that accessing the Internet through a smartphone is just as good as having high-speed Internet access in your house. In fact, he appears to believe this so strongly that he is looking into changing his agency's guidelines so that any place in the U.S. that has sufficient mobile coverage will be considered "connected," even if people living there have no option to receive broadband access in their homes.

That theory forms the essence of a new Notice of Inquiry that the FCC has just put out. As Ars Technica notes in a detailed rundown of the issue, the notice is a first step toward a potential policy change with respect to how the agency measures broadband deployment in the U.S. 

If Pai's idea somehow becomes the new official credo for the FCC, it would be a disaster for efforts to improve access to connectivity in America—a country that has, as we have noted several times in just the last year, a persistent, embarrassing digital divide.

Mobile broadband access isn't the same as connectivity at home. The screens are smaller, data caps on mobile bandwidth are much tighter (and overages far more expensive), and speeds are slower—something the agency seems to acknowledge in the notice, when it suggests that "mobile broadband" be defined at 10Mbps of download speed and 1Mbps upstream. For the record, that's less than half the 25Mbps/3Mbps threshold necessary for a home connection to qualify as "broadband."

In case there's any doubt about the impact such a policy would have, one need only to turn to our long read from late last year on how the digital divide is impacting millions of Americans. Hemmed in by a lack of affordable broadband at home, kids growing up in low-income parts of Cleveland, Ohio, for example, simply can't do as much homework or get as much extra help as those in more well-off neighborhoods. For adults the problem can be just as acute, preventing them from, say, hunting for jobs (and removing the possibility of picking up remote work).

If the proposed policy goes through, such problems figure to only get worse.

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