Earlier this year, the Biden administration announced a bold infrastructure plan designed to bridge the broadband connectivity gap, supporting additional broadband deployment to increase access across the country. Ensuring that Americans do not fall behind due to a lack of connectivity should remain a key priority for all regulators. However, rather than focusing on connecting areas in the United States that truly lack any broadband connectivity, the Biden plan seeks to redefine broadband  as a symmetrical 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) upload and 100 Mbps download connection to the Internet—meaning almost every part of the country immediately becomes unserved in the eyes of the regulator.
For example, despite having robust networks and significant competition among providers, my family’s home in Phoenix can only get 35 Mbps upload speeds despite nearly a gigabyte of download speeds—and would therefore be considered unserved. Such communities will then receive valuable funding to upgrade existing networks, or simply deploy new networks to compete with the incumbent providers. And considering that upgrading existing networks in profitable areas will be much easier and a better business decision than working in difficult-to-reach places, those without any broadband will likely have to wait even longer to join the 21st century economy.
So why take this approach?
Instead of focusing on getting those truly unserved areas connected, what proponents of the Biden plan really want is to make fiber the universal technology for broadband deployment, as fiber networks tend to be the only networks currently capable of 100 Mbps upload. To those who support symmetrical speeds, the plan would “future-proof ” American networks and solve the digital divide once and for all. But in many communities, fiber just doesn’t make sense, and comes at the exclusion of things like fixed wireless or satellite broadband which can more cost-effectively reach those communities. And while many of these technologies don’t currently have the same capacity as fiber, a strong business case for deployment can lead to further innovations that make them more competitive at higher speeds.
The Biden approach also ignores the specific application requirements that broadband should support, instead arbitrarily picking a number that will be “future proof.” Some legal  scholars  have begun suggesting that regulators should instead examine which applications a broadband connection should support, and then use those requirements to define what speeds actually constitute broadband. For example, if policymakers decide broadband should support two video calls and an HD video stream, then the definition of broadband would encompass speeds that could support those applications simultaneously. And the speed requirements for most applications are relatively low, especially when uploading data. According to a new Deloitte study , high quality video telecommunications services need no more than 1 Mbps upload speed, and casual gaming only needs about .5 Mbps upload to run. 100 Mbps speeds, especially for uploading, are simply unnecessary to support most modern applications, even when programs run concurrently.
We should continue to incentivize private companies to improve networks and provide more robust offerings to consumers, but the primary goal of subsidy programs must focus on increasing broadband access in those areas that currently lack any broadband connectivity. As the Deloitte report indicates, the economic impact of increasing broadband penetration and availability dwarfs the increase of speeds. Worse, the value of increasing speeds significantly diminishes as the speeds increase. The facts are clear: getting the unconnected online needs to remain the top priority for any subsidization program.
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- “broadband”: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/31/fact-sheet-the-american-jobs-plan/
- “future-proof”: https://broadbandbreakfast.com/2021/04/experts-weigh-what-future-of-broadband-could-look-like-under-bidens-infrastructure-plan/
- “legal”: https://twitter.com/jeffreywestling/status/1387094280246894599
- “scholars”: https://twitter.com/ProfDanielLyons/status/1387097069450579981
- “study”: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/process-and-operations/us-broadband-for-all-economic-growth.pdf