Is Defining Broadband by Speed a Good Policy?

I’ve lately been looking at broadband policies that have shaped broadband, and I don’t think there has been any more disastrous FCC policy than the one that defines broadband by speed. This one policy has led to a misallocation of funding and getting broadband to communities that need it.

The FCC established the definition of broadband as 25/3 Mbps in 2015, and before then, the definition of broadband was 4/1 Mbps, set a decade earlier. The FCC defines broadband to meet a legal requirement established by Congress and codified in Section 706 of the FCC governing rules. The FCC must annually evaluate broadband availability in the country – and the agency must act if adequate broadband is not being deployed in a timely manner. The FCC chose broadband speed as the way to measure its success, and that decision has become embedded in policies both inside the FCC and elsewhere.

There are so many reasons why setting an arbitrary speed as the definition of broadband is a poor policy. One major reason is that if a regulatory agency is going to use a measurement index to define a key industry parameter, that numerical value should regularly be examined on a neutral basis and updated as needed. It’s ludicrous not to have updated the speed definition since 2015.

Cisco has reported for years that the demand for faster speeds has been growing at a rate of about 21% per year. Let’s assume that the 25/3 definition of broadband was adequate in 2015 – I remember at the time that I thought it was a fair definition. How could the FCC not have updated such a key metric since then? If you accept 25 Mbps download as an adequate definition of broadband in 2015, then applying the expected growth in demand for speed by 21% annually produces the following results.

Download Speeds in Megabits / Second

2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
25 30 37 44 54 65 79

This is obviously a simplified way to look at broadband speeds, but a definition of the minimum speed to define broadband at 79 Mbps feels a lot more realistic today than 25 Mbps. Before arguing about whether than is a good number, consider the impact of extending this chart a few more years. This would put the definition of broadband in 2022 at 96 Mbps and at 116 Mbps in 2023. Those higher speeds not only feel adequate – but they feel just. 80% of the homes in the country already have access to cable company broadband where a speed of at least 100 Mbps is available. Shouldn’t the definition of broadband reflect the reality of the marketplace?

We know why the FCC stuck with the old definition – no FCC wanted to redefine broadband in a way that would define millions of homes as not having broadband. But in a country where 80% of households can buy 100 Mbps or faster, it’s impossible for me to think this one fact doesn’t mean that 100 Mbps must be the bare minimum definition of broadband.

There have been negative consequences of this definition-based policy. One of the big problems is that the 25/3 Mbps speed is slow enough that DSL and fixed wireless providers can claim to be delivering broadband even if they are delivering something less. Most of the FCC mapping woes come from sticking with the definition of 25/3 Mbps. If the definition of broadband today was 100 Mbps, then DSL providers would not be able to stretch the truth, and we would not have misallocated grant funding in recent years. Stubbornly sticking with the 25/3 definition is what saw us giving federal broadband grants to companies like Viasat.

As long as we are going to define broadband using speeds, then we’ll continue to have political fights over the definition of broadband. Congress recently ran headlong into this same issue. The original draft of the Senate bill had proposed a definition of broadband as 100/100 Mbps. An upload speed set at that level would have prohibited broadband grants for cable companies, WISPs, and Starlink. Sure enough, by the time that lobbyists made their calls, the definition of upload speed was lowered to 20 Mbps in the final legislation. Congress clearly gave in to political pressure – but that’s the line of business they are in. But we’ve had an FCC unwilling to be honest about broadband speeds for political reasons – and that is totally unacceptable.

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