There has been talk for over a year that the new FCC under Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is planning to raise the definition of broadband to 100/20 Mbps. It looks like that probably doesn’t happen until Congress approves a fifth Commissioner.
As much of a welcome relief as that would be, I think we also need to understand that a 100/20 Mbps definition of broadband is not forward-looking and will start being obsolete and too slow from the day it is approved. I’ve always argued that we need a mechanism to change the definition of broadband annually, or at least more often than we have been doing.
Consider a few facts that ought to be part of the discussion of the definition of broadband. The first is that the need for faster speeds has been growing since the 1980s, and there is no reason to think it will stop growing today. If we accept that 25 Mbps download was a decent definition of speed when it was adopted in 2015 and that 100 Mbps is a decent definition in 2022, then that is an acknowledgment that the public’s need for speed has increased by 21% annually during those years.
As it turns out if we look back at history that the demand for broadband speed has been growing at the same pace for a long time. The FCC set the definition of broadband at 200 kbps/200 kbps in 1996 and upped the definition to 4/1 Mbps in 2010. Plot those on a growth curve, and we can see the steady and inexorable growth of broadband since the dial-up days. You’d have to be a fool to think that we’ve reached the end of that growth curve. We’re finding new ways to use broadband in our homes every year, and the demand for better broadband keeps growing.
We have other evidence that the public demand for faster broadband continues to grow. That is evidenced by the new customer adoption statistics announced by OpenVault for December 31, 2021.
|Under 50 Mbps||9.4%|
|50 – 99 Mbps||7.6%|
|100 – 199 Mbps||36.9%|
|200 – 499 Mbps||28.5%|
|500 – 999 Mbps||5.5%|
According to OpenVault, only 17% of broadband subscribers are buying broadband products with advertised speeds under 100 Mbps. 46% of all households are buying broadband of 200 Mbps or faster – and that’s going to climb quickly as the big cable companies push faster speeds on all of their customers.
What do these statistics say about using 100 Mbps download as the definition of broadband? First, I think the market has already told the FCC that 100 Mbps is quickly becoming last year’s news. Within a year, when 60% or 70% of the public is buying broadband speeds of at least 200 Mbps, it will be obvious that 100 Mbps broadband is already in the rearview mirror for most Americans.
But we can also go back to the historic growth curve. If the demand for broadband keeps growing at the rate it’s grown since 1996, then the future demand for download speeds will be as follows:
Download Speeds in Megabits / Second
Hopefully, the FCC doesn’t change the definition and then rest on its laurels. Even by the time of the next presidential election, the definition ought to be 150 Mbps, and by 2028 would be expected to grow to over 300 Mbps.
Unfortunately, the definition of broadband has political and financial overtones. It determines who can win grants. A higher definition of broadband can declare that certain technologies are no longer considered to be broadband. In a perfect world, directed by the public demand for broadband, the definition of broadband would increase every year, something like the above.