Our broadband policies always seem to lag the market. If and when the FCC seats the fifth Commissioner, it’s expected that the agency will raise the definition of broadband from 25/3 Mbps to 100/20 Mbps. That change will have big repercussions in the market because it will mean that anybody that can’t buy broadband speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps would not have broadband. That’s how an official broadband definition works – you either have broadband, or you don’t.
The definition of broadband matters for several reasons. First, it makes areas that don’t have broadband eligible for federal grants – although many of the current round of big grants did not wait for the FCC to change the definition of broadband. It also matters in how we count the number of people without broadband. That has supposedly been one of the major purposes of the FCC broadband maps, and they failed badly in identifying homes that can’t buy 25/3 broadband. But on the day that the FCC changes the definition of broadband, millions of homes will be officially declared to not be able to buy real broadband.
I’ve always hated these arbitrary hard lines defined by speeds. Anybody who has ever done speed tests at their home knows that the broadband speed delivered varies from second to second, minute to minute, and hour by hour. It’s not unusual at my desk to see speeds vary by more than 50% during the course of the day.
The original purpose for having a definition of broadband was established by Congress, which directed the FCC to have plans to bring rural broadband into parity with urban broadband. The folks that wrote that law in 1996 could never have envisioned that we’d grow from having dial-up Internet to gigabit capabilities in urban America in 2022.
If the goal is still to create parity between urban and rural broadband, there is a much easier way to define broadband. The cable companies have regularly increased the speeds of their minimum broadband products, and in my mind, when they do so, they set a new standard target for parity between rural and urban areas.
Recently both Charter and Cable One increased the minimum speeds of basic broadband to 200 Mbps (with no mention of upload speeds). Charter is increasing speeds automatically with no rate changes. Cable One’s change seems like more of a quiet rate increase since it will charge customers $5 more per month to automatically move them from 100 Mbps to 200 Mbps.
Charter has always led the industry in this. I think they were a leader in moving to 30 Mbps, 60 Mbps, 100 Mbps, and now 200 Mbps. The rest of the cable industry generally matches Charter in this increases within a year or so.
The one exception is Comcast Xfinity. The company still has a 50Mbps and a 100 Mbps product. However, if you go to the web, all they are pushing is a new 300 Mbps product. I expect it’s not easy for a new customer to buy the 50 Mbps product.
When the big cable companies voluntarily raise the speed bar by increasing speeds across the board, they have, by definition, redefined urban broadband. Can parity mean anything other than residents in a rural area should be able to buy broadband as fast as is available to a basic broadband customer in an urban area?
Maybe I’m being too simplistic, but if the FCC finally raises the definition of broadband this year to 100/20 Mbps, it will already be lagging behind the urban broadband market with that definition.
Of course, the download speed question is only half of the speed equation. You have to dig deep on cable company websites to find any mention of upload speeds. The cable companies lobbied extremely hard during the passage of broadband grant legislation to make certain that the upload speed definition for grant purposes didn’t go higher than 20 Mbps. When cable companies talk to customers, they are moot on upload speeds since few urban cable products actually deliver 20 Mbps.
I probably have written too many blogs about the definition of broadband. But it’s a topic that keeps having real-life implications. It’s ludicrous that there are still federal grants that award more money for serving areas with broadband speeds under 25/3 Mbps. If the real goal of the federal government is to have parity between rural and urban broadband speeds, then Charter and Cable One just provided us with a new definition of broadband. If somebody uses federal grant money to build a rural market with 100 Mbps download technology, it’s already out of parity in 2022, and it’s hard to imagine how far it will be out of parity by the time the grant-funded network is built and operational.