It’s not unusual for a government to define broadband. Two years ago at the end of January 2015 the FCC defined US broadband to be connections that are at least 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. That was a huge increase over the older US standard of 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. The Canadian action raises several questions for me. First, what does it mean when a government defines broadband? Second, once broadband has been defined, how often should the definition be reexamined to see if it’s still adequate?
There is no easy answer to the second question. There is almost nothing in our lives that is growing as rapidly as the demand for broadband. Since the early 80s the demand for speeds and total downloads has doubled approximately every three years. According to Cisco that growth curve might be slowing a tad and perhaps will now double every four years. But this means that any definition of broadband is going to become quickly obsolete. I am not surprised to see somebody talking about twice the speed of the US broadband definition even though it’s only been two years since it was set. And this means that if a government is going to define broadband at a specific speed, then they are almost committed to reexamining that speed on a regular basis.
The policy question of why a government should define broadband is a harder question. Certainly there was a wide range of positions on the topic among the five FCC Commissioners at the time the new definition was set. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel thought the definition ought to be 100 Mbps download. Her reasoning was that what the FCC was setting was a goal and that striving high might prompt providers to meet the higher standard. At the other end of the spectrum, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly hated the 25/3 Mbps speed. He said that most cable companies already offered faster speeds and he saw no social benefit from defining broadband to be faster than what people without access to cable networks can get.
It’s clear that after the FCC set the 25/3 definition of broadband that even they weren’t quite sure what it meant. Soon after they approved the 25/3 standard they went on to approve the CAF II plan that is handing out $19 billion dollars to large telcos to improve rural broadband to speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. The FCC did not feel that their own definition of broadband constrained them from funding something slower.
The main way that the FCC uses their definition of broadband is to count the number of homes that are above or below the broadband threshold. To the FCC this is the litmus test by which they measure the state of broadband in the country. Interestingly, there isn’t a lot of difference for this accounting if the speed is set at 25 Mbps or 50 Mbps. Generally the technologies that can offer 25 Mbps can offer even faster speeds. If the official broadband speed is only for this litmus test then there wouldn’t be much difference between using 25 Mbps and 50 Mbps for that test.
The US has not undertaken any material efforts in the last few years to achieve faster broadband speeds. In fact, in can easily be argued that the CAF II program is doing the opposite and makes it harder for somebody to justify building fiber in rural areas. So, at least in the US, the broadband speed definition is not much more than a number. It certainly presents a target to shoot at for those parts of the country that don’t have broadband, but the government has done almost nothing with that definition to promote faster broadband.
Governments of all sizes have programs to build fiber. Portugal is doing this with tax incentives. The State of Minnesota is doing this with matching grants. And numerous cities have put bond money behind local fiber networks. We’ll have to watch to see if the Canadian government puts any more teeth into their attempt to define broadband. The fact that they also deemed broadband to be a basic service that should be available to all might mean that the government will take steps to build more broadband networks. But setting a broadband definition is a far cry from building fiber infrastructure and it will be interesting to see if setting the 50/10 Mbps goal equates to government involvement in building fiber.