Since it seems obvious that the new FCC will take a hard look at the definition of broadband, we can expect big ISPs to start the lobbying effort to persuade the FCC to make any increase in the definition as painless as possible. The large ISPs seem to have abandoned any support for the existing definition of 25/3 Mbps because they know sticking with it gets them laughed out of the room. But many ISPs are worried that a fast definition of broadband will bypass their technologies – any technology that can’t meet a revised definition of broadband will not be eligible for future federal grants, and even more importantly can be overbuilt by federal grant recipients.
AT&T recently took the first shot I’ve seen in the speed definition battle. Joan March, the Executive VP of Federal Regulatory Relations wrote a recent blog that argues against using symmetrical speeds in the definition of bandwidth. AT&T is an interesting ISP because the company operates three different technologies. In urban and suburban areas AT&T has built fiber to pass over 14 million homes and businesses and says they are going to pass up to 3 million more over the next year or two. The fiber technology offers at least a symmetrical gigabit product. AT&T is also still a huge provider of DSL, but the company stopped installing DSL customers in October of last year. AT&T’s rural DSL has speeds far south of the FCC’s 25/3 definition of bandwidth, although U-verse DSL in larger towns has download speeds as fast as 50 Mbps.
The broadband product that prompted the blog is AT&T’s rural cellular product. This is the company’s replacement for DSL, and AT&T doesn’t want the FCC to declare the product as something less than broadband. AT&T rightfully needs to worry about this product not meeting the FCC definition of broadband – because in a lot of places it is slower than 25/3 Mbps.
Reviews.org looks at over one million cellular data connections per year and calculates the average data speeds for the 3 big cellular carriers. The report for early 2021 shows the following nationwide average speeds for cellular data. These speeds just barely qualify as broadband with the current 25/3 definition.
AT&T – 29.9 Mbps download, 9.4 Mbps upload
T-Mobile – 32.7 Mbps download, 12.9 Mbps upload
Verizon – 32.2 Mbps download, 10.0 Mbps upload
PC Magazine tests cellular speeds in 26 major cities each summer. In the summer of 2020, they showed the following speeds:
AT&T – 103.1 Mbps download, 19.3 Mbps upload
T-Mobile – 74.0 Mbps download, 25.8 Mbps upload
Verizon – 105.1 Mbps download, 21.6 Mbps upload
Cellular data speeds are faster in cities for several reasons. First, there are more cell sites in cities. The data speed a customer receives on cellular is largely a function of how far the customer is from a cell site, and in cities, most customers are within a mile of the closest cell site. The cellular carriers have also introduced additional bands of spectrum in urban areas that are not being used outside cities. The biggest boost to the AT&T and Verizon urban speeds comes from the deployment of millimeter-wave cellular hotspots in small areas of the downtowns in big cities – a product that doesn’t use traditional cell sites, but which helps to increase the average speeds.
Comparing the urban speeds to the average speeds tells us that rural speeds are even slower than the averages. In rural areas, cellular customers are generally a lot more than one mile from a cell tower, which really reduces speeds. My firm does speed tests, and I’ve never seen a rural fixed cellular broadband product with a download speed greater than 20 Mbps, and many are a lot slower.
The AT&T blog never makes a specific recommendation of what the speeds ought to be. But Marsh hints at a new definition at 50/10 or 100/20. My firm has also done a lot of surveys during the pandemic and we routinely see about one-third of households or more that are unhappy with the upload speeds on urban cable company networks – which have typical upload speeds between 15 Mbps and 20 Mbps. AT&T is hoping that the FCC defines broadband with an upload speed of 10-20 Mbps – a speed that many homes already find inadequate today. That’s the only way that rural fixed cellular can qualify as broadband.