How fast is fast enough for broadband?

Just how fast is fast enough for broadband?

I last wrote about this 3 years ago, challenging the myth that universal fibre should be on the national agenda.

A couple of weeks ago, the FCC launched an inquiry [pdf, 155KB] to examine that question. The FCC intends to look at “universal deployment, affordability, adoption, availability, and equitable access to broadband”. The FCC Chair, Jessica Rosenworcel says the intent is to update the US broadband standard (currently 25Mbps down, 3Mbps up) to 100/20 and set a long-term goal for gigabit speeds.

The FCC Chair said that the 25/3 standard “is not only outdated, it masks the extent to which lowincome neighborhoods and rural communities are being left offline and left behind.”

However, FCC data shows that 94% of US households had 100 Mbps access available by the end of 2021. According to Eric Fruits of the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE), “If the FCC wants to increase the number of households with 100/20 Mbps speeds, it should recognize that much of the gap is driven by lower rates of adoption, rather than a lack of access to higher speeds.”

That is a familiar refrain for my readers. “The problem of increased broadband adoption can’t be fixed directly by throwing money at it, but we need to undertake more serious research into those factors that stand in the way of people subscribing to broadband.”

A September brief from ICLE was entitled “Finding Marginal Improvements for the ‘Good Enough’ Affordable Connectivity Program”. ICLE found that “about two-thirds of households without at-home internet have access, but don’t subscribe. The brief argues that, for households without a broadband subscription, their smartphone internet service may provide a superior “bang for the buck” relative to fixed broadband.”

Just as mobile devices have become a substitute for wireline home phones, we need to examine the extent to which smartphones and mobile services are substitutes for home internet connections.

In 2021, Pew Research found that 19% of respondents said the most important reason for not having broadband at home is that their smartphone does everything they need to do online. That study found that 15% of US adults are “smartphone-only” internet users – that is, they have a smartphone, but do not have a home broadband connection.

What is the best approach for encouraging continued broadband investment?

Do regulators need to raise targets? CRTC data shows that more two thirds of Canadian broadband subscriptions were already at speeds of 100 Mbps or higher, well above Canada’s broadband objective. Ninety percent of households had access to 100 Mbps service by year end 2021; more than three quarters of Canadians had access to gigabit speeds.

When there is demand for higher speeds, doesn’t this demonstrate companies will make the necessary investments? As I have said many times before, the future can be brighter for Canadian innovation and investment if the government would try harder to get out of the way.

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