The Federal Communications Commission regards a smartphone as the only computer the average American needs in their life.
That’s not as forward-thinking a philosophy as it may first appear, despite the continued growth in both the popularity and technology of smartphones.
In a statement released in August about launching a new inquiry into minimum internet standards, the FCC said it would regard cell phone access as equivalent to fixed broadband access. In other words, if you live in an area with no fixed broadband network but with healthy cellular coverage, the FCC thinks you’re sufficiently connected to the web. Going a step further, for the first time the FCC has stated a minimum speed for mobile connections: 10Mbps for downloading, and 1Mbps for uploading.
Given that the current average speed enjoyed by users on fixed connections—and endorsed by the FCC—is 25Mbps to download and 3Mbps to upload, that mobile quota is mighty slow.
If that’s your only connection to the internet, you can forget about high-end functions like streaming video in 4K or making video conference calls in high definition. The FCC ruling on high-speed internet is going to really limit your ability to socialize via video chat.
The FCC Ruling on High-Speed Internet
The FCC’s vision for the future is contained in its Notice of Inquiry, which states its intention to begin formally evaluating America’s internet standards. This process is strictly confined to the deployment of internet services to everyday citizens. The same process was started last year, but was scrapped following the change of government and the appointment of Ajit Pai as FCC Chairman.
It isn’t directly related to the more notorious net neutrality inquiry, which wound up its process of soliciting public feedback at the end of August after attracting a record 22 million public comments—six times more than the then-record figure the previous investigation attracted a few years ago.
Like net neutrality, however, this new inquiry has also attracted public criticism. The chief concern is that by regarding cellular coverage as equivalent to fixed broadband, internet service providers won’t be forced to provide the faster and more reliable fiber-optic services to low-density or low-income areas, mainly in rural America.
If that’s too Machiavellian an argument for you, just think about the impact effectively halving your internet speed would have on your life.
Slowing Internet Speeds to 2011 Levels
Of course, the FCC isn’t talking about removing or restricting current broadband speeds; it’s just proposing to accept 10Mbps as a new lower minimum for mobile speeds. That standard is about where most Americans were sitting at the turn of the last decade. In global terms, it’s about half of what Europeans enjoy, and around a third the speed of the fastest Asian nations.
In practical terms, 10Mbps/1Mbps is less than half the bandwidth required to watch 4K streams on Netflix or YouTube. It’s not even enough to make a high-definition video call on Skype—and seeing as HD is basically the industry standard for webcams, that’s a big blow.
What’s more, as the FCC considers fixed broadband and cellular the same thing, if you don’t currently have a fiber-optic connection, you’ll be making all your video calls—as well as every other internet transaction—on your phone.
A Smartphone Is All the Computer You’ll Ever Need
The FCC’s August statement goes to great lengths to establish that people are using smartphones for all their internet needs. It notes that phones are used more often than desktops to share photos and videos online, and that programs such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat, and Google Drive are available on smartphones. It also points out that the average data use by smartphone customers has quadrupled to 4GB a month between 2012 and 2016.
All of that points to the growth in popularity of smartphones, but it doesn’t acknowledge the practical difficulties of living purely on cellular.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a telecommuter or home office relying solely on their phone. The practicality of typing and dealing with complex files or graphics alone is enough to get you running to a desktop computer. Even the most advanced smartphones don’t have the processing power to match the hard drive of a laptop or a PC. And then there’s the small screen size to consider—a group video call will get very crowded very quickly on a phone screen.
The real problem, though, is that projected minimum speed. If you can’t place an HD call on Skype, you certainly can’t use 4K video calling, or other webcam features such as facial recognition software or background replacement technology. You’ll be stuck with the video-calling equivalent of basic cable just as social media is starting to embrace a variety of new ways to do real-time, face-to-face socializing using live streaming social media apps.
There’s no doubt smartphones are going to become a greater and greater part of our lives. Being content to see the bandwidth available to these devices linger at decade-old standards, however, is going to cripple their development. In fact, once features like 4K video calling and streaming become standard, anyone still restricted to 10Mbps downloads is going to look very low-tech.