“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”  — President John F. Kennedy, 1961

In just two generations we’ve gone from leaders who inspired our the country to reach for the stars to those who would lead us to the depths of mediocrity. From leaders who invested our tax dollars to build that great invention called the Internet, to those who would squander taxpayer dollars on corporations that would suck the life out of the Net.

The question of the hour is: Are you content to wallow in digital mediocrity, or will you do everything possible to take your community exploring in a gigabit universe?

We’re Going Backward

Imagine how much more life would suck for rural America if broadband were defined as 10 Megabits per second download speed and 1 Megabit upload? But Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has proposed these paltry speeds, and he seriously thinks this is a good idea. It’s not. To give in to Chairman Pai’s position is to sacrifice the good of consumers and businesses to appease companies whose technology is lagging.

Here are a few reasons why a 10/1 broadband shafts rural – and many parts of urban – communities.

The future stops here if we don’t fight. “Research tells us that even for a family of four, the biggest use of their home [internet] connection is for video, specifically Amazon and Netflix,” observes CEO Jimmy Carr of All Points Broadband, a wireless ISP (or WISP). “Speed tests show Netflix takes at most 4 or 5 Mbps of bandwidth per person.” That means 20 megs when each member of a family of four is streaming their own content.

Jared Brown, principal consultant of Fiberrun says of the 10/1 policy in his blog, “It’s enough to surf Facebook, but that’s about it. This low-level definition translates into ‘Don’t work from home, don’t videoconference, don’t do backups and don’t do Netflix.’ Don’t even dream about telemedicine or e-learning.” Because customers will get even less bandwidth than 10/1 at prime internet usage time, when demand for data is at its highest.

While you’re locked, the world rocks! The internet’s need for speed changes faster than Kim Kardashian changes outfits. Many remember when 5 Meg hard drives and AOL dial-up speeds put you on top of the World Wide Web. For about a minute. There are web applications and services that can change local government deficiencies, education, local economies, and healthcare delivery, and 40% of rural areas can’t even access those, according to the think tank New America. Things get worse if Pai is allowed to lock us into last century’s standards.

Different day, same bull dung. Codifying 10/1 allows the the FCC to continue to give big companies such as Frontier, Windstream, and AT&T billions of dollars to provide poor service at exorbitant prices. The set up works like this.

The FCC sets the definition of broadband as 10/1. Giant telcos and cable companies go to the FCC (or another federal agency), promise they’ll upgrade their infrastructure, do a little work, produce a map that shows there’s broadband coverage where customers know there isn’t, and stockholders go home happy. The rules, precedents, and high powered lobbyists will decrease the chances of funding going to small providers like fixed wireless internet providers, municipalities and co-ops.

As long as 10/1 equals broadband, incumbents can replace inadequate DSL with newer inadequate DSL, maybe move some fiber lines closer to homes but definitely not to every doorstep. As long as a few houses in a ZIP code have 10/1, maps show the entire ZIP code has 10/1. The failsafe that ensures incumbents get their money are the words “up to.” Incumbents can promise you’ll get “up to 10 Megs,” but the max is often a pipe dream, especially between 4-10 p.m. when everyone’s studying, working, or being entertained.

Same day, different bull, less money. Many states rely on the FCC’s definition of broadband when they determine who gets state funds to improve broadband. Incumbents play the same games to get state funding as they do with the Feds, though the winnings are smaller given the limited funds states provide for broadband infrastructure.

Tennessee, for example, created a fund of $45 million, but spread out over three years. $15 million could be one small county’s entire broadband deployment budget. And community providers still face the same rules, precedents, and high powered lobbyists working against them.

The capacity to upload. Often people use “speed” when they’re taking “capacity” and vice versa. However, thes words are NOT interchangeable!

10/1 Mbps speed to a single house often is pathetically slow, specially if there’s more than one person living there. But you can’t fight for increased speed without fighting for increased network capacity. Some incumbents like to brag about having 100 Mbps speed, but they forget to mention that they’re sharing the network’s capacity to deliver that speed amongst dozens or a few hundred subscribers, so each customer has a smaller share of the bandwidth when more people are online.

And speaking of speeds, users have got to fight aggressively for symmetrical speeds, meaning equal speed to download and upload data. We’ve gotten used to internet access heavily weighted in favor of downloads. We tell the world, “We’ll listen, you bury us with content” – hence 10/1 Mbps, 25/3 Mbps, etc.

However, it’s a new day. Telemedicine apps, e-learning, virtual reality and technologies not even conceived yet will demand symmetrical speeds, and a lot of it.

Go big or go home. The best way to fight this assbackwardness is to demand (forcefully, relentlessly) a definition of broadband that represents hundreds of megabytes per second. Or just keep it simple – demand a gig. INCOMPAS did. Formerly COMPTEL, they are the leading trade association advocating for competition policy across all networks. INCOMPAS said in an FCC filing, “Gigabit service is here and will support future uses. It is time for the FCC to update the speed for fixed broadband to 1 Gig.”

There are over 400 municipalities and public utilities delivering true high speed broadband, many of them a gigabit. Along with co-ops, WISPs, and small providers, they have figured out how to fund and build networks capable of taking us to the moon, to Mars, and beyond.

To even entertain a 10/1 broadband standard is pathetic and it’s insulting. We can do better this. Take our dollars that the FCC siphons from our phone bills and give it to communities, not to industry giants that offer us less for more money.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant, and author of “Building the Gigabit City.” 

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