The FCC recently issued the Notice of Inquiry (NOI) seeking input on next years broadband progress report. As usual, and perhaps every year into the future, this annual exercise stirs up the industry as we fight to define the regulatory speed of broadband. That definition matters because Congress has tasked the FCC to undertake efforts to make sure that everybody in the country has access to broadband. Today broadband is defined as 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, and households that can’t buy that speed are considered underserved if they can get some broadband and unserved if they have no broadband options.
The NOI proposes keeping the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband for another year. They know if they raise it that millions of homes will suddenly be considered to be underserved. However, the FCC is bowing to pressure and this year will gather data to see how many households have access to 50/5 Mbps broadband.
It was only a year ago when this FCC set off a firestorm by suggesting a reversion to the old definition of 10/1 Mbps. That change would have instantly classified millions of rural homes as having adequate broadband. The public outcry was immediate, and the FCC dropped the idea. For last year’s report the FCC also considered counting mobile broadband as a substitute for landline broadband – another move that would have reclassified millions into the served category. The FCC is not making that same recommendations this year – but they are gathering data on the number of people who access to cellular data speeds of 5/1 Mbps and 10/3 Mbps.
The FCC has also been tasked by Congress for getting faster broadband to schools. This year’s NOI recommends keeping the current FCC goal for all schools to immediately have access of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students, with a longer-term goal of 1 Gbps per 1,000 students.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has suggested in the current NOI that the official definition of broadband be increased to 100 Mbps download. She argues that our low target for defining broadband is why “the United States is not even close to leading the world” in broadband.
I think Commissioner Rosenworcel is on to something. The gap between the fastest and slowest broadband speeds is widening. This year both Comcast and Charter are unilaterally raising broadband speeds to customers. Charter kicked up the speed at my house from 60 Mbps to 130 Mbps a few weeks ago. AT&T is building fiber to millions of customers. Other fiber overbuilders continue to invest in new fiber construction.
The cable companies decided a decade ago that their best strategy was to stay ahead of the speed curve. This is at least the third round of unilateral speed increases that I can remember. A customer who purchased and kept a 20 Mbps connection a decade ago is probably now receiving over 100 Mbps for that same connection. One way to interpret Commissioner Rosenworcel’s suggestion is that the definition of broadband should grow over time to meet the market reality. If Charter and Comcast both think that their 50 million urban customers need speeds of at least 100 Mbps, then that ought to become the definition of broadband.
However, a definition of broadband at 100 Mbps creates a major dilemma for the FCC. The only two widely deployed technologies that can achieve that kind of speed today are fiber and cable company hybrid fiber/coaxial networks. As I wrote just a few days ago, there are new DSL upgrades available that can deliver up to 300 Mbps for 3,000 – 4,000 feet from a DSL hub – but none of the US telcos are pursuing the technology. Fixed wireless technology can deliver 100 Mbps – but only to customers living close to a wireless tower.
If the FCC was to adopt a definition of broadband at 100 Mbps, they would be finally recognizing that the fixes for rural broadband they have been funding are totally inadequate. They spent billions in the CAF II program to bring rural broadband up to 10/1 Mbps broadband. They are getting ready to give out a few more billion in the CAF II reverse auction which will do the same, except for a few grant recipients that use the money to help fund fiber.
By law, the FCC would have to undertake programs to bring rural broadband up to a newly adopted 100 Mbps standard. That would mean finding many billions of dollars somewhere. I don’t see this FCC being bold enough to do that – they seem determined to ignore the issue hoping it will go away.
This issue can only be delayed for a few more years. The country is still on the curve where the need for broadband at households doubles every three or so years. As the broadband usage in urban homes grows to fill the faster pipes being supplied by the cable companies it will become more apparent each year that the definition of broadband is a lot faster than the FCC wants to acknowledge.