Kevin Ross, founder and CEO of WeLink, wrote a piece for Forbes yesterday that calls for “symmetrical broadband connections” – or 100mbps download and 100mbps upload speeds – in the name of closing the digital divide. WeLink offers home WiFi and serves “an undisclosed number of customers in parts of Las Vegas” and has plans to expand in major cities like Phoenix and Tucson, according to FierceWireless.
In his Forbes article, Ross says that, “With symmetrical access, there is no ‘speed discrimination’ based on the direction of data traffic.” While “no discrimination” may sound like a good thing at first blush, “speed discrimination” is an empty term, because it ignores the reality of whether broadband users actually need the same download and upload speeds.
With 100mbps download and 20mbps upload (100/20) broadband speeds, three to five users can download or stream HD simultaneously. A 5GB HD movie can be downloaded in six minutes, and it would take about seven minutes to upload a 1GB file (1 gigabyte is equivalent to 1,000 megabytes). For reference, most PowerPoint presentation files range between 4 MB to 10 MB in size, on average. A 10-minute video in Full High Definition (30FPS) will produce a file size of just over 1 gigabyte. The vast majority of Americans would be able to do everything they need and want to do with 100/20mbps broadband speeds.
Seeking a 100/100 speed standard might be reasonable if federal funding was unlimited…but the bipartisan infrastructure bill currently being hammered out by the Senate includes just $65 billion for broadband. “Building future-proof networks to all locations with less than 100/100 Mbps service would cost approximately $106B-$179B,” as estimated by ACA Connects
As Ross points out, more than 30 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet. If the standard for broadband was set at 100/100, approximately two-thirds of the United States would be in line for federal funding! Taxpayers dollars invested in over-serving some consumers with 100/100 broadband means no dollars for connecting under-served Americans with more-than-sufficient-for-most-
Leaders should set the bar for broadband at 100/20 and first connect households without service that meet today’s 25/3 definition of broadband. To achieve 100/20 speeds, a variety of technologies could be used, including cable, next-generation fixed wireless, fiber optics or satellite, all of which could be upgraded down the road when there is truly a widespread need for higher speeds. A technology neutral approach would allow solutions for achieving universal broadband to be tailored to the characteristics of each community. WeLink’s technology is probably a great fit for Las Vegas, NV but pretty impractical for Taos, NM absent massive wasteful subsidies. “Fixed wireless access (FWA) service…makes sense for denser urban and suburban environments,” Ross notes.
Ross goes on to say that “Increasing broadband competition will go a long way toward enhancing internet access in unserved and underserved areas by incentivizing ISP incumbents to reduce prices and improve services.” But promoting competition is not enough to connect the financially vulnerable. As John B. Horrigan, a Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, explains:
“…price competition may not result in price decreases of sufficient magnitude to address affordability for very poor households (or at least very many of them)…even a 20% price drop may still leave broadband out of reach for low-income households. For that reason, making service more affordable for low-income households may be a better approach.”
Thus, a permanent broadband subsidy benefit, through a modernized Lifeline Program, for example, is an absolute necessity to address the issue of broadband affordability and fully close the digital divide.
WeLink’s technology should be considered as part of the effort for closing the digital divide and reaching universal broadband, but excluding other technologies that don’t offer 100/100 speeds from being in the running would hurt Rural America. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo was on the right track when she said during a recent Congressional hearing that federally-funded broadband networks should consider multiple different technologies, based on geographies, economics and specific circumstances.
A requirement of 100/100 broadband speeds might be good for WeLink, but it would leave too many Americans in the digital dark, such as the one-third of Rural America that is disconnected. With limited funds to achieve universal broadband, the U.S. needs a combination of solutions responsive to local needs that can be cost-effectively deployed. Closing the gap between the digital haves and have-nots depends on it.