FCC Boosts Rural Broadband Speed Requirements to 10 Mbps

Broadband providers that want to get funding through the Connect America program to help bring services to more rural users must now agree to provide download speeds of at least 10 Mbps.

rural broadband

The Federal Communications Commission has raised minimum download speeds to 10 Mbps for any broadband companies that want to get funds from the government's 4-year-old Connect America program to install and maintain broadband services in rural parts of the United States.

The new minimum speed provision was unveiled by the FCC in an announcement on Dec. 11, replacing the previous minimum speed requirement of 4 Mbps.

"The FCC will now require companies receiving Connect America funding for fixed broadband to serve consumers with speeds of at least 10 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads," the commission announced. "That is an increase reflecting marketplace and technological changes that have occurred since the FCC set its previous requirement of 4 Mbps/1 Mbps speeds in 2011."

The move is part of the FCC's efforts to encourage the installation of high-speed broadband capabilities in rural areas so that people in those communities can compete in business, education, commerce and other areas of today's economy. The Connect America program was created to help spur and drive broadband investment in rural areas.

"According to recent data, 99 percent of Americans living in urban areas have access to fixed broadband speeds of 10/1, which can accommodate more modern applications and uses," according to the FCC. "Moreover, the vast majority of urban households are able to subscribe to even faster service" in other parts of the nation.

That difference in service speeds is what the government is trying to correct. "Congress directed the FCC to make available in rural areas communications services that are reasonably comparable to those in urban areas," the FCC stated. "Increasing the Connect America speed requirement means that rural Americans, like urban Americans, can tap the benefits provided by broadband through faster web downloads, improved video streaming, and service capable of supporting multiple users in a household."

The new FCC broadband service requirements will make about $1.8 billion of funding available annually to help encourage and spread new broadband capabilities in rural areas. That money could potentially expand service to more than 5 million rural Americans, according to the FCC.

At least one broadband carrier, AT&T, voiced displeasure over the proposal when it was made by the FCC back in September.

In a Sept. 4 letter to the FCC, AT&T attorneys argued that the proposal to raise the minimum rural broadband speed requirement to 10 Mbps was "not adequately supported" by evidence that would show its true need. The AT&T letter also called the FCC's proposal "flawed in multiple respects," including an example the FCC used that called for speed increases so that multiple people in a rural household could simultaneously watch an HD movie, make an HD video call, save files to the cloud and perform background functions, all while using the same broadband connection and maintaining adequate speed levels.

"The Commission's assumption that the full bandwidth amounts would be continuously needed is incorrect, and it would be arbitrary to establish a new definition of advanced telecommunications capabilities based on simple addition of these abstract (and arbitrarily chosen) bandwidth estimates," the AT&T letter stated at the time.

In November, the FCC announced that some 181 applicants had proposed about 600 projects under the Connect America fund for experiments that could help find reliable, affordable ways to bring high-speed broadband services to rural residents across the United States. The program works to encourage the development of new technologies that could bring broadband to the most remote residents of the country, where traditional broadband installations can be extremely expensive to install. The 181 applications for some 600 separate experimental projects represented about $885 million in investments, according to the agency.

The $100 million available for the experiments include $75 million to test competitive interest in building networks that are capable of delivering 100Mbps downloads and 25Mbps uploads, $15 million to test interest in delivering service at 10/1 speeds in high-cost areas and $10 million for 10/1 service in areas that are extremely costly to serve, the agency reported.

Similar broadband expansion efforts have been going on in the private sector, according to a recent eWEEK report. In May, startup Mimosa Networks received another $20 million in financing for its efforts to bring fiber-speed wireless connectivity to rural areas and developing countries.

Service providers are under increasing pressure for more bandwidth and higher performance from consumers and businesses that are becoming more mobile and armed with more mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. Trends such as cloud computing, bring your own devices (BYOD) and the Internet of things will only increase the demands on carriers.

Rural broadband shortages continue, despite previous FCC efforts to encourage such development, according to another eWEEK report from 2012. "Vast expanses of the rural South, as in other underpopulated sections of the nation, are bereft of any kind of broadband access despite an investment effort by the FCC," the report stated at the time.

In March, the FCC held a Rural Broadband Workshop in Washington to focus on ways of solving the related problems.