FCC Should Follow Signposts for Change With Mobile Broadband

There are plenty of good hiking trails and the second-highest mountain peak in Virginia near the North Carolina border in Grayson County, where my wife and I have a weekend home. One thing wilderness hikers know is that if you start with even a small error in navigation, you can end up very far from where you intended to be — and that can be dangerous.

The analogy comes to mind because a new survey shows just how fast the market for broadband is changing—and many policymakers have yet to take note. CivicScience, an independent research firm, conducted a detailed survey of American consumers to create greater insight into how consumers view their existing options for connecting to the internet (mobile and various types of fixed broadband) and how they actually use these options in their daily lives. The online poll of 10,000 respondents was structured to be representative of the U.S. population by demography and geography.

The results were surprising. The survey highlights that since 2014 — when data was last collected on the topic—the ways in which consumers access the internet have dramatically changed.

Today, 43 percent of all respondents report a preference for mobile access or report no preference as compared to 47 percent expressing a fixed broadband preference. This result underscores that distinctions between different types of broadband no longer matter to consumers; what’s important is simply that they are able to access the internet at reasonable speeds. So today’s consumers have no clear preference for how they access the internet—what one might expect in a highly competitive market in which various technologies (as well as companies) compete against each other.

Why does this matter? In Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, Congress directs the Federal Communications Commission to report every year on the adoption of “advanced telecommunications services,” which of course includes broadband. In its 2016 report, the FCC started including mobile broadband among “advanced telecommunications services” but concluded that mobile and fixed broadband were not “functional substitutes.” It reaffirmed that decision in 2018, even though studies on which it relied were from 2014. Four years seems like a century in the fast-changing broadband market.

It’s time to update the data and make sure policymakers can avoid errors in navigation. The CivicScience survey represents the most current, comprehensive look at the market. Using information from the survey, the FCC can provide to Congress the most accurate information, not only on how many consumers have access to fast broadband but also on how consumers access and use it.

Switching to a mobile-only internet profile hasn’t limited the range of ways in which consumers use the internet. According to the survey, a clear majority of consumers now use their mobile internet connections for bandwidth-intensive activities like watching sports and movies. Additionally, one in two households with children have used mobile broadband to complete homework assignments in the last year, and one in four consumers annually use mobile broadband to apply for a job. Again, these results are consistent across demographic groups. These findings are also consistent with new data from Pew Research, which shows that roughly 6 in 10 U.S. adults (58 percent) often get news on a mobile device, nearly triple the 21 percent who did so in 2013 and 19 percentage points higher than the 39 percent who often get news on a desktop or laptop computer.

Consumers no longer see mobile and fixed internet access alternatives as fundamentally different but use different types of broadband access in similar ways. In other words, mobile and fixed broadband are now functional substitutes.

My wife and I see this reality in our own lives. At our home in Grayson County, our local phone company provides broadband, but only (where it exists) at DSL speeds. There is no cable-provided broadband service, and there is not yet a fiber alternative. But we use both DSL and mobile broadband, because we have a pretty strong cellular signal. So we can be consummate consumers of broadband, using both mobile and DSL alternatives. We use these services interchangeably and perform all internet-related functions on both platforms. According to the CivicScience survey, that usage pattern is now prevalent across the nation.

I hope this survey helps the FCC as it prepares its next report to Congress. The trends the survey revealed will likely accelerate in the years ahead. It’s important that regulation tracks marketplace reality, so as we hike through the thickets of broadband policy, particularly as we seek to reach pockets of the country that don’t yet have fast broadband options, we end up at the right place. That’s as true in Washington as it is in Grayson County.

Rick Boucher, who served as a Democratic member of the House of Representatives for 28 years and as former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet, is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and head of the government strategies practice at the law firm Sidley Austin.

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