The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is required to issue an annual Broadband Progress Report detailing whether the spread of broadband Internet access over the last year was “reasonable and timely.” The 2015 report said it was not.

To this point, the FCC used speed as the only criteria in determining the spread of broadband adoption. But in August, the FCC requested comments on whether it should consider new factors to determine the successful spread of broadband for its next Broadband Progress Report. These factors could include latency, reliability, privacy, data caps, and price. That may sound like a boring point of procedure, but based on the FCC’s past actions, if this new criteria is approved, it could mean big changes for the future of high-speed Internet availability.

Why does it matter?
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 says, “If the Commission’s determination is negative [because the spread of broadband was not reasonable nor timely], it shall take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.”

To understand why the Broadband Progress Report is so important, look back at what the FCC did this year after determining the spread of broadband in 2014 was neither reasonable nor timely.

•Redefined the definition of broadband speed, increasing it from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps

•Implemented Net Neutrality, reclassifying Internet Service Providers as Title II common carriers

•Expanded the Lifeline program, subsidizing Internet access for low-income households

•Redesigned the E-rate program, adding $1.5 billion for broadband in public schools and libraries

•Added nearly $1.7 billion in funding to the Connect America program to bring broadband to rural Americans

That’s an impressive amount of action, and there’s still a quarter of the year left. We could still see quite a few changes before the FCC releases the next Broadband Progress Report.

How could new factors change the FCC policy?
Let’s indulge in some speculation for a moment. Say the FCC determines that price, latency, data caps, or some other factor is responsible for slowing the spread of broadband. This could create new policy regarding those factors to promote competition, as the Telecommunications Act of 1996 instructs. What if, for instance, it decided high prices limited the spread of broadband adoption, and then proposed policy that would provide incentives for new ISPs to go into markets already dominated by one provider?

The cost of building a fiber network makes some ISPs reluctant to enter markets where another ISP already has a significant head start. Imagine that, to spur competition and lower prices, these reluctant providers start getting tax breaks if they enter these areas. Such a move would likely result in lawsuits against the FCC, but lawsuits didn’t deter the FCC from making policy changes in 2015.

How do you judge broadband?
When shopping for a high-speed Internet plan, you, too, should consider factors besides speed. It’s important, but depending on how you use the Internet, the quality of the signal, limits on data use, and price may be more important to you. And because the most important factor is availability, you need to know which plans you can choose from in your area. If you’re not making reasonable and timely progress in finding a better plan, just enter your ZIP code below.

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