A group of US Senators recently sent a letter to the FCC asking to raise the definition of broadband to 100/100 Mbps. This speed has been discussed for several years as the logical step forward from the current 25/3 Mbps speed set by the FCC in 2015. It’s clear to everyone in the industry that homes are using a lot more broadband than they did in 2015 – with the biggest change being simultaneous uses of multiple broadband streams in the typical home.
I thought I’d discuss just what it would mean to change the definition of broadband. I think the change in broadband definition would trigger the following:
- This would make it clear that DSL is an obsolete technology. We’d no longer have to worry about the big telcos that stretch the truth by claiming 25/3 Mbps speeds on DSL to stave off federal grants to overbuild them. No DSL will meet the 100/100 Mbps test and DSL will automatically be considered as an obsolete technology not capable of delivering modern broadband. Any area served by rural DSL should automatically be eligible for federal grants.
- A higher definition of speed also declares other technologies to be inadequate. This eliminates high-orbit satellites from consideration for grant funding – something that should never have been allowed as was done in the CAF II reverse auction. This new definition would declare that older versions of fixed wireless technology are obsolete and would require WISPs to upgrade to new technology if they want to be considered for grant funding. This also kills the idea that WISP networks that have multiple wireless backhaul hops are adequate – only fiber-fed radios can meet the needed speeds.
- This would put cable companies on the hot seat because many cable systems are not capable of 100 Mbps upload speeds. Most big cable companies did not bother to upgrade the upload portion of the network when they upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1. Cable companies that stick to the older DOCSIS 3.0 technology will fail this new FCC speed for uploading. Expect cable companies to fight fiercely against increasing the definition of broadband. If this new speed is adopted, expect to see cable companies quietly completing the mid-split upgrades to improve upload speeds – something they all should have automatically done when it was clear that poor upload speeds were the primary culprit in homes struggling during the pandemic. A change in the definition of broadband could goal cable companies into doing what they should have done as good corporate citizens.
- This might also be a problem for the low orbit satellite companies. There are already some early beta tests results from Starlink that could pass the speed test – but many early speed tests do not. But the technology is still in beta testing and if Elon Musk is being truthful that the download speeds will soon be 300 Mbps, then 100/100 Mbps might be a passable hurdle. However, critics of Starlink say that speeds are going to bog down tremendously when more customers are added to the satellite networks. We will probably find out more about Starlink’s likely speeds if Starlink pushes back against a faster definition of broadband.
- This definition would mean that most of rural America would rightfully be declared to not have broadband. Homes served by fiber pass the test. Homes served with WISPs with the latest technology, from towers fed by fiber, and within 2-3 miles of good line-of-sight with the transmitter can pass the test. Everything else used to provide broadband in rural America would no longer be considered as broadband.
- This drastically changes the picture for federal grants. Today, huge swaths of rural America were denied RDOF grants because telcos lied about the speed capability of rural DSL. A higher definition of broadband speeds will paint a whole new picture where the vast majority of rural America should be eligible to get broadband grant assistance.
- This also drastically changes the reporting to Congress on the state of US broadband. Recall that this reporting was the original reason that the FCC established a definition of broadband. Overnight we’d go from 10s of millions of homes without good broadband to potentially hundreds of millions – if the cable companies truthfully report on upload speed capability. That would paint the picture that every broadband consultant, engineer, and policy person already knows – that much of America is unhappy with their current broadband. The 100/100 Mbps definition of broadband would align the FCC with the public perception of what is acceptable broadband.