Is 10 Mbps Really Broadband?

Polk County Sign‘On December 11 the FCC released an order in Docket No 10-90 that increased the definition of broadband for rural landline connections that can receive funding from the Universal Service Fund. The new baseline definition of broadband is 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload and which replaces the old definition of 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. In today’s world is 10 Mbps really broadband?

The FCC came to this number based upon tables they included in the Tenth Broadband Progress Notice of Inquiry released last August. The FCC suggested the following as representative of the broadband usage today in different sizes of homes:

‘                                       Light Use        Moderate Use             Heavy Use

One User                      1 – 2 Mbps          1 – 2 Mbps                6 – 15 Mbps

Two Users                    1 – 2 Mbps          1 – 2 Mbps                6 – 15 Mbps

Three Users                 1 – 2 Mbps          1 – 15 Mbps              More than 15 Mbps

Four Users                   1 – 15 Mbps        6 – 15 Mbps              More than 15 Mbps

The first thing that is obvious is that the FCC didn’t set the new standard high enough to satisfy households with 3 or 4 people. I know in my household with 3 users that we often look something like the following in the evening:

1 User watching HD movie                      5.0 Mbps

1 User watching SD movie                       3.0 Mbps

Web browsing                                           0.5 Mbps

Cloud Storage                                           1.0 Mbps

Background (synching emails, etc.)       0.4 Mbps

‘          Total                                                9.9 Mbps

But we can use more than that. For instance we might be watching three HD videos at the same time while still doing the background stuff, and using over 16 Mbps, as the FCC suggests.

Clearly the old metric of 4 Mbps that was adopted in 2011 is now too low. But I think the new standard is already too low for today’s usage and it will probably be three years or more before this is considered again.

This new definition is going to be used in the upcoming reverse auction for Universal Service Fund support. Carriers can ask for a monthly subsidy from that fund to help to offset construction of broadband facilities that will deliver the 10 Mbps speeds. That is not a lump sum grant, but instead a payment per month over 5 – 7 years that help to pay for the new investment over time.

So what kind of landline technology can deliver this much speed? Clearly fiber can do it. Cable companies with their hybrid fiber coaxial plant can do it. And DSL can do it on good copper up to about 7,000 feet from the central office. The problem in rural areas is that the copper is often not in good shape. Plus we know that both AT&T and Verizon want to ditch copper and are unlikely to take any funding to expand copper capability. The only other way that DSL can deliver this speed any significant distance is to locate the DSLAMs (DSL hubs) in the field. But that means building more fiber.

The way I understand this change, it only applies to companies looking for a subsidy out of the Universal Service Fund. This change would be a lot more impressive if it was also the new definition of bandwidth for all purposes including the National Broadband Map. If that map was accurate, then changing the minimum definition of broadband to 10 Mbps would mean that many millions of rural homes would suddenly be classified as having no broadband. But that map is full of inaccuracies because the speeds that are ‘available’ to customers are self-reported by carriers which often exaggerate the actual speeds they can deliver.

I know that there are a lot of rural small towns where the real speeds of either DSL or cable modems today is under 6 Mbps and sometimes only a few Mbps. These areas are mostly counted today as having broadband and under the new definition they would no longer have it. But making that change is a public hot potato and no FCC staffer or politicians wants to say that fewer Americans have broadband.

Anything that brings more broadband to rural areas is good, but this increase just feels inadequate. If CAF funds are used to build DSL that barely can deliver 10 Mbps, then households getting the speed upgrades will find themselves being too slow in just a few years before the ink has barely dried on the paperwork. Statistics show that household bandwidth consumption is doubling every three years, and so in six short years, a household that needs 10 Mbps today is going to need 40 Mbps.

In the recent experimental grants that were just awarded by the FCC, the broadband speeds required to get funding varied between 25 Mbps and 100 Mbps. Those kinds of speeds are enough broadband to provide a little future-proofing. It is a mistake to give anybody federal money to build a new network that can only deliver 10 Mbps. Any town that gets such an investment will get very temporary relief but will then fall behind the curve in a few years when the rest of the country has 100 Mbps or faster service.

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  1. Pingback: Redefining broadband speeds – promoting a culture of consumers not producers | Blandin on Broadband

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