The New Speed Battle

I’ve been thinking about the implications of having a new definition of broadband at 100/20 Mbps. That’s the threshold that has been set in several giant federal grants that allow grant funding to areas that have broadband slower than 100/20 Mbps. This is also the number that has been bandied about the industry as the likely new definition of broadband when the FCC seats a fifth Commissioner.

The best thing about a higher definition of broadband is that it finally puts the DSL controversy to bed. A definition of broadband of 100/20 Mbps clearly says that DSL is no longer considered to be broadband. A 100/20  Mbps definition of broadband means we can completely ignore whatever nonsense the big telcos report to the FCC mapping process.

Unfortunately, by killing the DSL controversy we start a whole new set of speed battles with cable companies and WISPs that will be similar to the controversy we’ve had for years with DSL. Telcos have claimed 25/3 Mbps broadband coverage over huge parts of rural America in an attempt to deflect broadband grants. In reality, there is almost no such thing as a rural customer who can get 25/3 Mbps DSL unless they sit next to a DSLAM. But the telcos have been taking advantage of the theoretical capacity of DSL, and the lax rules in the FCC mapping process allowed them to claim broadband speeds that don’t exist. I hate to admit it, but overstating DSL speeds has been a spectacularly successful strategy for the big telcos.

We’re going to see the same thing all over again, but the new players will be cable companies and WISPs. The controversy this time will be more interesting because both technologies theoretically can deliver speeds greater than 100/20 Mbps. But like with DSL, the market reality is that there are a whole lot of places where cable companies and WISPs are not delivering 100/20 Mbps speeds and would not be considered as broadband with a 100/20 Mbps yardstick. You can take it to the bank that cable companies and WISPs will claim 100/20 Mbps capability if it helps to block other competitors or if it helps them win grants.

The issue for cable companies is the upload speed. One only has to look at the mountains of speed tests gathered around the country to see that cable upload speeds are rarely even close to 20 Mbps. We’ve helped cities collect speed tests where maybe 5% of customers are reporting speeds over 20 Mbps, while the vast majority of cable upload speeds are measured at between 10 Mbps and 15 Mbps. Usually, the only cable customers with upload speeds over 20 Mbps are ones who have ponied up to buy an expensive 400 Mbps or faster download product – and even many of them don’t see upload speeds over 20 Mbps.

This begs the question of what a definition of broadband means. If 95% of the customers in a market can’t achieve the defined upload speeds, is a cable company delivering broadband under a 100/20 Mbps definition? We know how the telcos answered this question in the past with DSL, and it’s not hard to guess how the cable companies are going to answer it.

It’s not a coincidence that this new controversy has materialized. The first draft of several of the big grant programs included a definition of broadband of 100/100 Mbps – a speed that would have shut the door on cable companies. But cable company lobbying began immediately, and the final rules from Congress included the slimmed-down 100/20 Mbps broadband definition.

WISPs have a more interesting challenge because the vast majority of existing WISP connections are nowhere close to meeting either the upload or download speed of 100/20 Mbps. But fixed wireless technology is capable of meeting those speeds. A WISP deploying a new state-of-the-art system can achieve those speeds today for some reasonable number of miles from a tower in an area with good lines of sight. But most existing WISPs are deploying older technology that can’t come close to a 100/20 Mbps test. Even WISPs with new technology will often serve customers who are too far from a tower to get the full speeds. Just like with cable companies, the 100/20 Mbps definition of broadband will allow WISPs to stay in the game to pursue grants even when customers are not receiving the 100/20 Mbps speeds. So brace yourself, because the fights over speeds are far from over.

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