Internet connectivity is an essential part of society, and our capability to provide it is constantly evolving. While the U.S. is setting standards and plans to achieve them, the technology continues to improve—rendering today’s definitions out of date by tomorrow.
All the while, a multitude of factors from geopolitical issues to parts and labor shortages to population growth all stand in the way of broadband advancement and need to be considered in our plans.
But we can’t talk about where broadband is going without first addressing one major issue: globally, we don’t agree on what broadband really means. It’s hard to know where you stand if you don’t know what you’re measuring yourself against.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has defined broadband by upstream and downstream speeds (25 mbps download speed and 3 mbps upload speed, respectively), though some states set their own higher standards. The European Union does not currently employ a specific, standardized minimum definition for broadband speeds but in 2016 the European Commission announced it was aiming for all households to have access to a minimum of 100 Mbps+ by 2025. Standards vary in Asia, where S&P Global found that 74.6% of broadband subscribers have access to download speeds of 100 Mbps and above as of 2019. In Latin America, the goal is for 50% of the population to have access to broadband speed, but there is little definition of that standard.
There’s been talk at the policy level of updating the U.S. FCC standard, which has been in place since 2015, to 100 mbps upstream and downstream. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the President has set a goal for universal broadband access by 2030. That would bring the U.S. more in line with other regions, but still begs the question: are we trying to stay competitive or simply trying to catch up with others?
Setting the right mark is essential in order to rally all of the various public/private partnerships, skilled labor and hardware required to achieve an ambitious goal like increasing broadband availability. For now, the U.S. has prioritized getting its Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program off the ground. These are important programs, but may not be as well-rounded as they need to be in order to succeed in their ultimate goal to serve U.S. residents with differentiated broadband service. For example, this legislation will spur an unprecedented amount of construction activity and may create a nationwide demand for skilled labor far beyond what the current workforce can support.
And the U.S. is not just short on labor. There’s been a global shortage of fiber optic cable and other associated chips and parts required to create and improve broadband networks. This will likely increase due to the limited amount of raw materials and labor available, but also because of potential geopolitical issues that impact these areas.
That leads us to the final factor that needs to be more deeply considered in the U.S. broadband plan: geopolitical issues. Everything from the chips required for these networks to the undersea cables that deliver 95% of all international internet service relies on global cooperation. That makes broadband, and the raw materials and labor that go into delivering it, weapons of influence in an escalating competition between global superpowers.
All the while, consumer expectations for high-quality internet service are only going to continue to increase. So is our reliance on it as a society. It’s essential to consider all of these factors as we look at the future of this essential infrastructure in the U.S. We suggest aiming high.