Cable Companies Oppose FCC Vote to Adopt Advanced Broadband

NEWS ANALYSIS: The FCC wants to implement broadband capable of 25M bps for downloads and 3M bps for uploads, a number that is easy technically but hard politically.

Broadband Speed B

The Federal Communications Commission vote on Jan. 29 to change the definition of broadband to require 25M-bps download speeds is not meeting universal accolades.

The previous definition, which the FCC wants to scrap, defined broadband as 4M bps. And those are just the download speeds. Upload speeds would need to be at least 3M bps, which is triple the current 1M-bps standard.

What this means is that eventually cable or phone companies would have to upgrade their networks to run at least that fast to receive subsidies from the Universal Service Fund for broadband deployment.

As you might expect considering that all of this is taking place in Washington, there are complicating factors. For one thing, the FCC can use the new definition as a club with which to bludgeon states that have laws restricting communities that want to set up their own broadband networks, a move that was announced a few days later.

In that case, the FCC can pre-empt state laws that restrict broadband deployment in much the same way that it pre-empts laws limiting cell phone towers now.

The FCC announced the broadband definition change in its annual Broadband Progress Report, which is required by Congress. In the report, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that the current 4M-bps standard is less than the recommended capacity for HD video.

In addition, Wheeler noted the burgeoning 4K video market, which provides video resolution four times that of high-definition video. Some televisions and monitors as well as program content that support this high resolution are already available, although in limited amounts.

Predictably, the cable industry objected. The change in the standard has the potential of complicating the Comcast–Time Warner merger; cable and phone companies stand to lose those federal subsidies; and the whole rural broadband initiative being pushed by the FCC would be harder to deploy.

"Application and service providers, consumers, and the broadband providers are all pointing to 25/3 as the new standard," FCC Chairman Wheeler said in his statement supporting the FCC's new definition. "Content providers are increasingly offering high-quality video online, which uses a lot of bandwidth and could use a lot more as 4K video emerges. If you were to look at the ISPs' marketing materials, most recommend speeds of 25 Mbps or higher if you plan on using multiple connected devices at the same time."

Opposition to the standard comes from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which asserts that cable users don't need bandwidths as fast as 25M bps. In its filing with the FCC objecting to the new definition, NCTA Counsel Matthew Brill said that circumstances in which Americans might need such speeds were "hypothetical."

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...