The number of people in the U.S. without access to broadband Internet effectively tripled this week, after a change in definition by the Federal Communications Commission made the official standard for the term a connection with a download speed of 25 megabytes per second and upload speed of 3Mbps.
The decision – which some argue reflects the simple reality that the old standard of 4mbps/1mbps is inadequate in today’s data-driven world – was still controversial. The two GOP members of the commission voted against the change, while the three Democrats, including FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, approved it.
Under the new standard, about 55 million Americans, or 17 percent of the population, do not have access to broadband Internet service. Rural areas are hardest hit: More than half the consumers there don’t have a service option that meets the standard.
Wheeler noted the increasing need for high-speed connectivity to accomplish everyday tasks, and pointed out that in a household with 4mbps of download speed, it is difficult or impossible for multiple people to be online at the same time.
“In 2015, taking turns to share the Internet bandwidth is as absurd as taking turns to use the electricity,” Wheeler said in a statement.
Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel supported the move, but said she would have aimed higher. “We invented the Internet. We can do audacious things if we set big goals, and I think our new threshold, frankly, should be 100Mbps. I think anything short of that shortchanges our children, our future, and our digital economy. I don’t think reaching a benchmark like this is easy – but nothing worthwhile ever is.”
In his dissent, Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly claimed that the commission’s analysis of actual broadband access relies on “intentionally flawed analyses” and suggested that the commission’s adoption of the 25mbps download standard assumes a demand for service that doesn’t exist.
“While the statute directs us to look at ‘advanced’ telecommunications capability, this stretches the concept to an untenable extreme,” he wrote. “Some people, for example, believe, probably incorrectly, that we are on the path to interplanetary teleportation. Should we include the estimated bandwidth for that as well?”
The party-line division bodes ill for any sort of bipartisan agreement on an upcoming vote that will determine whether the FCC decide to reclassify broadband internet service entirely so that it can be regulated like a utility.
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