Trump’s Executive Orders Boosting Rural Broadband Won’t Stop FCC Sabotage

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President Trump has signed a pair of executive orders billed as protecting and supporting rural populations with limited access to internet services and less-certain connectivity. This, in and of itself, is a fine thing. We’re strong proponents of the idea that everyone deserves affordable broadband service, including people who don’t live in or near cities. The problem with President Trump’s executive orders, however, is they don’t actually do much to promote his stated goal. To understand why, let’s look at both a little more closely.

The first order, “Presidential Memorandum for the Secretary of the Interior,” instructs the Secretary of the Interior to develop a plan “to support rural broadband development and adoption by increasing access to tower facilities and other infrastructure assets managed by the Department of the Interior.”

That’s a fine rule, as far as it goes, but it’s only going to help those parts of the country where the lack of access to federal land is the reason ISPs haven’t previously built out service. It may well be this is a problem in western states, where federal ownership of land is higher, or in odd corner cases in the more eastern states, but it’s a highly targeted fix. It also focuses specifically on access to tower facilities, with a secondary mention of everything else, implying that wireless towers, not wireline installations, are the focus of the order. The second EO is even more explicit in suggesting wireless service is equivalent to wireline.

The second order is the “Presidential Executive Order on Streamlining and Expediting Requests to Locate Broadband Facilities in Rural America,” and it does even less. This executive order declares the government will continue to enforce section 6409 of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. This particular section of the law deals with rules governing access to wireless communication sites and mandates the use of a common set of forms for companies that wish to apply for permission to build on a given site, or need to alter an existing site in some fashion.

Again, this is a reasonable declaration to make. But announcing you’re going to continue enforcing an already-existing law does nothing to improve the state of rural broadband. In fact, these two executive orders could make the problem worse by giving rhetorical cover to the FCC.

The FCC Already Wants to Redefine Broadband

Both of Trump’s executive orders begin with similar verbiage about the need for strong broadband in rural areas. This quote, from the second executive order, is representative of the way both documents talk about the topic: “It shall therefore be the policy of the executive branch to use all viable tools to accelerate the deployment and adoption of affordable, reliable, modern high-speed broadband connectivity in rural America.”

Again, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that sentence and it echoes arguments we’ve made at ET. But one of the goals of Ajit Pai, the current FCC chair, is to redefine what constitutes broadband. The FCC’s current broadband definition only refers to wireline/fixed service and mandates a 25Mbps down/3Mbps up connection. Under Ajit Pai, the FCC wants to define a new, significantly slower standard for wireless service (10Mbps down/1Mbps up). Having access to either type of service would now count as broadband, even though wireline/fixed service is vastly cheaper, scales to multiple devices without additional costs beyond a Wi-Fi router, doesn’t incur the same penalties for using more than one’s allotted amount of bandwidth per month, and offers far faster service.

But even if the cost of service was identical, the wireless service being delivered isn’t. For the purposes of this comparison, I’ve used PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks wireless speed tests, with the Southwest standing in for rural America. First, here are the measured, averaged results for the entire country:

Nationwide, the top three carriers are, on average, pretty close together. Network reliability and the percent of uploads and downloads that average above 2Mbps and 5Mbps respectively are also reasonably solid. Now compare these scores with the results for the Southwest area in particular:

Southwest

Every single metric drops off compared to the nationwide values. Sprint takes a hammering here, but they aren’t the only company to see steep reductions in various metrics. And keep in mind, the Southwest geographical area still includes cities, interstates, and towns where connectivity will naturally be better. Out in rural areas, cell phones simply can’t be assumed to ‘just work,’ as anyone who has ever lived or visited one can attest. Interstate service is typically fine, but drive 10 or even five miles away from one and the drop-off is often severe. AT&T’s 93 percent reliability rate looks pretty good, but it still means the company’s southwest network is twice as unreliable as the rest of the country. And since the tests focus on cities, not the middle of random windswept prairies, the Southwest data set as shown above could be better, on average, than what your typical rural customer will see in the first place.

When then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed the 25/3 wireline broadband standard, ISPs threw a fit, despite the fact that their own marketing told people 10Mbps connections were only fit for online shopping. You hear no such noise from wireless companies about a possible 10/1 standard, possibly because they’re mostly delivering it anyway. Aside from Sprint, whose patented wireless rock+invisible string method of providing service has improved markedly over the years, but still lags the Big Three, everyone is pushing far above the the 10/1 standard.

That could be read as proof that the standard isn’t necessary, because everyone gets above 10/1 anyway. But having lived in rural areas and fought with cellular service providers for a number of years, I see the situation differently. The 10/1 standard is a giveaway to wireless companies because it sets the bar so low, you can deliver a miserable experience and still claim acceptable service. Download and upload speeds aren’t the sum total of what makes an ISP good or bad, either. There’s questions of reliability, latency, and sustained speeds as well, and wireline broadband tends to be more consistent on every metric.

If the definition of broadband is lowered to include everyone who has at least a 10/1 wireless connection, it’ll lead to a steep drop in the number of US citizens who lack broadband service. If the CDC defines obesity as “Only applicable to people weighing more than 500 pounds,” it’ll also lead to a steep drop in the number of obese people in the United States. Same principle. Since the text of both executive orders refers specifically to using the powers of the federal government to increase the number of people with access to broadband, and changing the definition of broadband makes more people have it, everyone in Washington DC can pat each other on the back for their efforts.

President Trump’s executive orders may help US citizens whose access to cellular broadband has been stymied by land use issues and we support that outcome. But they aren’t going to do anything to help anyone else, and they offer rhetorical cover for the FCC and US government to eventually claim victory by definitional shift as opposed to a real improvement in anyone’s internet service.

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