What Is Broadband? FCC Doesn't Know

In the middle of its massive review of broadband in America, the Federal Communications Commission seeks an answer to a fundamental question: Just what is broadband?

As required by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus package, the Federal Communications Commission has until February 2010 to develop a national broadband plan to be presented to Congress. With an emphasis on an open dialogue with all stakeholders through a series of public workshops, the FCC is busily compiling a public record on the state of broadband in America.
First, though, the FCC wants to know just how to define broadband.
"We seek tailored comment on a fundamental question-how the [National Broadband] Plan should interpret the term 'broadband' as used in the Recovery Act, recognizing that our interpretation of the term as used in that statute may inform our interpretation of the term in other contexts," the FCC stated in an Aug. 20 Notice of Inquiry. "An understanding of what constitutes broadband thus is essential to evaluating the extent to which 'broadband capability' is available, and informs the evaluation of particular policy approaches intended to ensure access to broadband capability."
The FCC currently defines broadband service as a static 768K bps downstream and 200K bps upstream, a definition a number of public interest groups claim is entirely too low a bar for 21st century telecommunications. In addition, the FCC notes, it is unclear what the endpoints of the connection are over which throughput is measured or whether the performance of the endpoints is reflected in the stated throughput.
The FCC also says there are network characteristics-such as latency, reliability and mobility-that are relevant for certain applications but not others.
"As the [Public Notice] points out, much of the recent debate tends to center on throughput speeds. Engineers know that these numbers by themselves are most often misleading," The FCC's Carlos Kirjner wrote Aug. 20 in the agency's new broadband blog. "For example, in most cases the 'advertised' throughput speed has a tenuous relation with the actually delivered speed, which will actually vary over time, depending on the application, the server, and many other factors."
The FCC is seeking public comment on whether to develop a single definition or multiple definitions of broadband; whether an application-based approach to defining broadband would work, and how such an approach could be expressed in terms of performance indicators; what segments of the network each performance indicator should measure, such as the local access link to the end user, or an end-to-end path; and how factors such as latency, jitter, traffic loading, diurnal patterns, reliability and mobility should specifically be taken into account for broadband speeds.
The notice also asks whether different performance indicators or definitions should be developed based on technological or other distinctions, such as mobility or the provision of the service over a wired or wireless network; and the feasibility and verifiability of measuring different performance indicators.
"If we want to decide who has and who does not have broadband, we actually need to agree on what we mean by broadband," Kirjner wrote. "If we want to decide who can take advantage of one type of application or another, we need to know what they are actually getting today, and what is the gap between that and what they actually need to get?"
You can submit brief comments on the inquiry to the FCC here. Click on the radio button for the National Broadband Plan Notice of Inquiry - Docket 09-51. If you want to file longer comments using an attachment, file comments here using the same docket number.