I’ve been reading through the comments in FCC Docket 14-126 that asks the question if the FCC should increase the definition of broadband. The comments are sticking mostly to the expected script. It seems that all of the large incumbents think the current definition of 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload are just fine. And just about everybody else thinks broadband should be something faster. In the Docket the FCC suggested that a low-use home today needs 4 Mbps download, a moderate-use home needs 7.9 Mbps and a high-use home needs 10 Mbps.
AT&T says that the current definition of 4 Mbps is adequate to define ‘advanced telecommunications capability’ per Section 706 of the FCC rules. They argue that customers don’t use as much bandwidth as the FCC is suggesting. For example, they argue that most of their customers who pay for 12 Mbps service rarely hit a maximum of 10 Mbps during a typical month. They argue that the FCC is trying to change the definition of broadband by only looking at what the heaviest users of broadband are using.
AT&T goes on to say that they and other companies like Google and the large cable companies are now deploying gigabit-capable technology and so the FCC has no reason to worry about data speeds since the industry will take care of the problem by increasing speeds. I obviously disagree with AT&T on this argument. They are using the red herring of what is happening in places like Austin Texas and extrapolating that to mean that the whole country is seeing huge broadband upgrades. As I have written many times, small town America is not getting any of the new broadband investment that AT&T touts in their comments. And rural America is still often stuck with dial-up, satellite or cellphone data. Further, AT&T has been actively saying elsewhere that they want to kick millions of customers off copper and get rid of their DSL option.
Verizon took a different tactic in their filing. They also don’t want the definition increased from 4 Mbps. They first argue that they have made a lot of investments in broadband, and they certainly have done so with their FiOS fiber network in cities and suburbs. But they then go on to argue that cellular data ought to be counted as broadband and that they are offering a great cellular alternative to people. They cite that 97.5% of people in the country have access to LTE with broadband speeds greater than 10 Mbps download and that this should be counted as broadband.
There are a few problems with their claim. First, Akamai collects the speeds from millions of cellular data downloads and they report that the average cellular data speed actually achieved in the country is 4.4 Mbps and not Verizon’s theoretical 10 Mbps. And cellular data is bursty, meaning that it’s designed to be fastest for the first few seconds of download and then normally slows down. More interestingly, a few months back Comcast citied Verizon and AT&T cellular data as evidence that Comcast has robust broadband competition. Verizon Wireless’s CEO countered the Comcast’s claim and said, “LTE certainly can compete with broadband, but if you look at the physics and the engineering of it, we don’t see LTE being as efficient as fiber coming into the home.” Finally, everybody is aware that cellular data plans include tiny data caps of only a few cumulative gigabits of download per month and cellphone users know that they must park on WiFi from landlines data sources as much as possible to make their cellphones usable for video and other heavy data usage.
Verizon goes on to cite the National Broadband Map several times as justification that there is already great broadband coverage in the US today. They say that 99% of households already have access to broadband according to the map. I have written several times about the massive inaccuracies in that map due to the fact that all of the data in it is self-reported by the carriers.
The big cable companies did not make comments in the docket, but there is a filing from the National Cable Telecommunications Association on behalf of all of them. NCTA says that the definition of broadband should not be increased. Their major argument is that the FCC is not measuring broadband deployment correctly and should measure it every year and report within six months of such measurements. They also say that the FCC should take more consideration of the availability of cellular and satellite data which they say are broadband. I haven’t commented on satellite data for a while. Some parts of the country can now get a satellite connection advertised with a maximum download speed of 15 Mbps. It’s been reported to be a little slower than that, but like cellular data a satellite connection has tiny data caps that make it nearly impossible for a family with a satellite connection to watch video.
In a speech last week FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that 10 Mbps is too low to be considered broadband and that federal funds like the Connect America Fund should not be funding the construction of any broadband with speeds lower than that. It’s going to be interesting to see where the FCC comes out on this. Because if they raise the threshold too much then a whole lot of households are going to be declared to no longer have true broadband, which is pretty much the truth.