How Should the US Define Broadband?

FCC_New_LogoThe FCC just released the Tenth Broadband Progress Notice of Inquiry. As one would suppose by the title there have been nine other of these in the past. This inquiry is particularly significant because the FCC is asking if it’s time to raise the FCC’s definition of broadband.

The quick and glib answer is that of course they should. After all, the current definition of broadband is 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. I think almost everybody will agree that this amount of bandwidth is no longer adequate for an average family. But the question the FCC is wrestling with is how high they should raise it.

There are several consequences of raising the definition of bandwidth that have to be considered. First is the purely political one. For example, if they were to raise it to 25 Mbps download, then they would be declaring that most of rural America doesn’t have broadband. There are numerous rural town in the US that are served by DSL or by DOCSIS 1.0 cable modems that have speeds of 6 Mbps download or slower. Even if the FCC sets the new definition at 10 Mbps they are going to be declaring that big portions of the country don’t have broadband.

And there are consequences of that definition beyond the sheer embarrassment of the country openly recognizing that the rural parts of America have slow connectivity. The various parts of the federal government use the definition of what is broadband when awarding grants and other monies to areas that need to get faster broadband. Today, with the definition set at 4 Mbps those monies are tending to go to very rural areas where there is no real broadband. If the definition is raised enough those monies could instead go to the rural county seats that don’t have very good broadband. And that might mean that the people with zero broadband might never get served, at least through the help of federal grants.

The next consideration is how this affects various technologies. I remember when the FCC first set the definition of broadband at 3 Mbps download and 768 Kbps upload. At that time many thought that they intended to shovel a lot of money to cellular companies to serve broadband in rural areas. But when we start talking about setting the definition of broadband at 10 Mbps download or faster, then a number of technologies start falling off the list as being able to support broadband.

For example, in rural areas it is exceedingly hard, if not impossible, to have a wireless network, either cellular or using unlicensed spectrum, that can serve every customer in a wide area with speeds of 10 Mbps. Customer close to towers can get fast speeds, but for all wireless technologies the speed drops quickly with the distance from a tower. And it is also exceedingly hard to use DSL to bring broadband to rural areas with a target of 10 Mbps. The speed on DSL also drops quickly with distance, which is why there not much coverage of DSL in rural areas today.

And when you start talking about 25 Mbps as the definition of broadband then the only two technologies that can reliably deliver that are fiber and coaxial cable networks. Both are very expensive to build to areas that don’t have them, and one wonders what the consequences would be of setting the definition that high.

The one thing I can tell you from practical experience is that 10 Mbps is not fast enough for many families like mine. We happen to be cord cutters and we thus get all of our entertainment from the web. It is not unusual to have 3 – 4 devices in our house watching video, while we also surf the web, do our daily data backups, etc. I had a 10 Mbps connection that was totally inadequate for us and am lucky enough to live where I could upgrade to a 50 Mbps cable modem service that works well for us.

So I don’t envy the FCC this decision. They are going to get criticized no matter what they do. If they just nudge the definition up a bit, say to 6 or 7 Mbps, then they are going to be rightfully criticized for not promoting real broadband. If they set it at 25 Mbps then all of the companies that deploy technologies that can’t go that fast will be screaming bloody murder. We know this because the FCC recently used 25 Mbps as the minimum speed in order to qualify for $75 million of their experimental grants. That speed locked out a whole lot of companies that were hoping to apply for those grants. They might not have a lot of choice but to set it at something like 10 Mbps as a compromise. This frankly is still quite a wimpy goal for a Commission that approved the National Broadband Plan a few years ago that talked about promoting gigabit speeds. But it would be progress in the right direction and maybe by the Twentieth Broadband Inquiry we will be discussing real broadband.

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