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.”
Cable Companies Oppose FCC Vote to Adopt Advanced Broadband
“In reality, these hypotheticals dramatically exaggerate the amount of bandwidth needed by the typical broadband user,” Brill said in his statement to the FCC.
Brill, it would appear, is ignoring the marketing material provided by his association’s own membership, which routinely recommend the 25M-bps download speed in places where multiple users are watching large amounts of video and performing backups. Brill also noted that at this point, the FCC’s definition of broadband has no regulatory basis beyond the definition in the Broadband Progress Report.
But as is frequently the case in Washington, there’s even more to it than that. “There is a large, and unacceptable, disparity in broadband access between urban Americans and Americans in rural areas and Tribal lands,” Wheeler said in his report.
To many people, very likely including the NCTA, which didn’t address this issue in its response, people in rural areas are commonly thought of as being part of “flyover country” and as a result don’t really matter.
But in reality, a substantial number of small and medium-size businesses operate in those areas. Those businesses include farms as you’d expect, but they also include factories and offices and retail businesses. These businesses share the same lack of service or access to low-grade service as consumers in those same rural areas, who are dismissed by the cable companies as being too far apart and too few to deserve service.
Part of the FCC’s broadband initiative is to bring a reasonable level of broadband service to rural, tribal and other users who currently don’t have it. And while there are plenty of references in the responses to the FCC’s new definition to service in urban areas, it’s worth noting that in most cities, those urban areas only include upscale urban areas.
Frequently, poor and working-class neighborhoods are last to get anything like what most of us think of as broadband, unless you include those dreadfully slow, but still expensive DSL lines that are unaccountably still being pushed on far too many users.
I know how these numbers work out from personal experience. One of my business locations is in a working-class rural area, where DSL is the standard and even 25M-bps broadband is expensive—and not always available. In that general area are hundreds of small and some not-so-small businesses that have trouble competing because of lack of adequate access.
Right now, according to statistics released by Wheeler in his statement, one in six potential users in the U.S. doesn’t have access to 25M-bps broadband. Of those who have access, relatively few of them have more than one choice of broadband supplier. Perhaps the FCC can accomplish what the industry has failed to accomplish and provide at least the potential for real broadband access in the U.S.