The Asymmetrical Consequences of Symmetrical Speeds | Citizens Against Government Waste

The Asymmetrical Consequences of Symmetrical Speeds

The WasteWatcher

As Congress begins to debate an infrastructure bill that could cost $3 trillion, there will be a strong push to include up to $100 billion in broadband funding.  The first hearing on this issue, Recent Federal Actions to Expand Broadband: Are We Making Progress?, was held on March 17, 2021, by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.  A good deal of the discussion focused on whether the new standard for minimum broadband speeds should be set at a symmetrical 100/100 Mbps and how much more Congress should spend to deploy broadband networks across the country. 

The current minimum standard for broadband network speeds is 25/3 Mbps.  According to a March 22, 2021 NCTA report, “over the last decade the average downstream-to-upstream traffic ratio has grown from 3:1 in 2010 to over 14:1 by the beginning of 2019.”  The private sector investment that made this growth possible held up during the pandemic, when consumers downloaded far more content than they were uploading, including video conference technology used to conduct classes online and operate businesses remotely.  This trend will continue as the economy continues to recover from the pandemic, since not everyone will return to work in their old office space or attend class in person.

If Congress or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were to arbitrarily and capriciously set a standard for data download and upload speeds to a symmetrical 100/100 Mbps, it would fly in the face of the way consumers now use the internet and create an even greater divide between those who have and those who do not have internet access.  For example, service providers will be required to change their service to existing customers at the expense of those who remain without available service. 

Funding broadband deployment with taxpayer dollars was another key discussion point at the hearing.  Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have introduced legislation to allocate another $94 billion for broadband deployment without any guardrails or restrictions on how this funding is to be spent, which among other adverse consequences could permit states and local governments to build government-owned networks in direct competition with existing service providers.  The same can be said for the $219.8 billion State Fiscal Relief Fund and the $120.2 billion Local Fiscal Relief Fund in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which both allow the fund to cover costs incurred by December 31, 2024 “to respond to the public health emergency . . . including assistance to households, small business, and nonprofits” or “to make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure …” (emphasis added). 

During the hearing, former FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said,, “Like many, I am still analyzing the broadband-related provisions in the latest Covid-19 law, along with those just introduced to enact a huge infusion of federal broadband funding.  My initial reaction is that the added E-Rate funds will be difficult to stop once the pandemic ends.  This means that providers, who invested heavily in those areas, potentially risk losing customers, which may affect their ability to maintain, upgrade, and expand service.  I also have concerns with the new $10 billion program created within the Treasury Department.  There appears to be few, if any, limitations on how this funding can be used.  That raises a host of red flags, and I’m hopeful that appropriate guardrails can be imposed later, with the recognition that they were not permitted under the reconciliation process.”

Members of Congress must use some common sense, if they have any left, when determining whether to use more taxpayer resources to provide funding for broadband deployment or artificially change the definition for minimum speed standards.  If there is an agreement to spend another $94 billion or more for broadband, there must be strict limits to prohibit state and local governments to build what will end up being new dark networks where service already exists, and instead provide incentives for service providers in communities where broadband is lacking at even the basic minimum speed threshold of 25/3 Mbps.  This is the answer to getting service to those who truly are unserved and do not have the current minimum standard, rather than artificially moving the goal post on speeds and throwing away tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.