Technology neutral does not mean price and service oblivious

3 February 2016 by Steve Blum
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It was either pay the rent or the Verizon bill, but at least I’m getting good reception.

The Federal Communications Commission got it right last week, and the California Public Utilities Commission got it wrong. On the one hand, the FCC formally decided that “fixed and mobile broadband services are not functional substitutes for one another“, and reaffirmed that the minimum acceptable speed for wireline service is 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up.

On the other, the CPUC put a big hole in a proposed fiber to the home system, because one of the small towns it will serve apparently has mobile service available that meets its 6 Mbps down/1.5 Mbps up minimum. Arguably it means that the town, Lee Vining, is not eligible for subsidies from the California Advanced Services Fund.

I say arguably because there was no evidence you can get those speeds on a mobile phone inside, say, a home – the speed tests are done outdoors – and, as the CPUC has ruled previously, price matters. Mobile service from AT&T and Verizon in Lee Vining costs a lot more – 10 times more or better, depending on the amount of data consumed – than the $25 for 25 Mbps pricing Race Telecommunications will be offering in nearby towns that aren’t similarly blessed.

But the argument that three of the five commissioners – Michael Picker, Carla Peterman and Liane Randolph – bought is the one that mobile carriers are selling: if you have a smartphone, you have all the broadband you need and no one cares if it drains your bank account or you have to sit outside to use it.

It’s time for the CPUC to drop the pretence of technological neutrality and recognise, as the FCC did, that “although fixed and mobile broadband may utilize different network technologies, the salient differences between the two service types are found not in their technological differences, but in the distinct capabilities that they provide consumers”.