A New Definition of Broadband?

FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel has circulated a draft Notice of Inquiry inside the FCC to kick off the required annual report to Congress on the state of U.S. broadband. As part of preparing that report, she is recommending that the FCC adopt a new definition of broadband of 100/20 Mbps and establish gigabit broadband as a longer-term goal. I have a lot of different reactions to the idea.

First, the FCC is late to the game since Congress has already set a speed of 100/20 Mbps for the BEAD and other federal grant programs. This is entirely due to the way that the FCC has become totally partisan. Past FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was never going to entertain any discussion of increasing the definition of broadband since he was clearly in the pocket of the big ISPs. The FCC is currently split between two democrats and two republicans, and I find it doubtful that there can be any significant progress at the FCC on anything related to broadband in the current configuration. I have to wonder if the Senate is ever going to confirm a fifth commissioner – and if not, can this idea go anywhere?

Another thought that keeps running through my mind is that picking any speed as a definition of broadband is completely arbitrary. We know in real life that the broadband speed to a home changes every millisecond, and speed tests only take an average of the network chaos. One of the things we found out during the pandemic is that jitter might matter more than speed. Jitter measures the variability of the broadband signal, and a customer can lose connectivity on a network with high jitter if the speed drops too low, even for a few milliseconds.

I also wonder about the practical impact of picking a definition of speed. Many of the current federal grants define a served customer as having an upload speed of at least 20 Mbps. It’s clear that a huge number of cable customers are not seeing 20 Mbps upload speeds, and I have to wonder if any State broadband offices will be brave enough to suggest using federal grant funding to overbuild a cable company. If not, then a definition of broadband as 20 Mbps upload is more of a suggestion than a rule.

Another issue with setting definitions of speed is that any definition of speed will define some technologies as not being broadband. That brings a lot of pressure from ISPs and manufacturers of these technologies. This was the biggest problem with the 25/3 Mbps and DSL. While it is theoretically possible to deliver 25/3 Mbps broadband on a single copper wire, the big telcos spent more than a decade claiming to meet speeds that they clearly didn’t and couldn’t deliver. We’re seeing the same technology fights now happening with a 100/20 Mbps definition of broadband. Can fixed wireless or low orbit satellite technology really achieve 100/20 Mbps?

Another issue that has always bothered me about picking a definition of broadband is that the demand for speed has continued to grow. If you define broadband by the speeds that are needed today, then that definition will soon be obsolete. The last definition of broadband speed was set in 2015. Are we going to wait another seven years if we change to 100/20 Mbps this year? If so, the 100/20 Mbps definition will quickly become as practically obsolete as happened with 25/3.

Finally, a 100/20 Mbps speed is already far behind the market. Most of the big cable companies have recently declared their basic broadband download speed to be 200 Mbps. How can you set a definition of broadband that has a slower download speed than what is being offered to at least 65% of the households in the country? One of the mandates given to the FCC in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was that rural broadband ought to be in parity with urban broadband. Setting a definition of broadband only matters for customers who don’t have access to good broadband. Do we really want to use federal money in 2022 to build 100 Mbps download broadband when a large majority of the market is already double that speed today?

Trying to define broadband by a single speed is a classical Gordian knot – a problem that can’t be reasonably solved. We can pick a number, but by definition, any number we choose will fail some of the tests I’ve described above. I guess we have to do it, but I wish there was another way.

Future-proofing Grants

There has been a lot of discussion in the last few months about how wonderful it was for Congress to have increased the speed requirements for broadband grant eligibility to 100/20 Mbps in the $42.5 billion BEAD grants. But is it really all that wonderful?

It’s obvious that the FCC’s definition of broadband of 25/3 Mbps is badly out of date. That definition was set in 2015, and it seemed like an adequate definition at the time. If we accept that 25 Mbps was a good definition for download speed in 2015 and that 100 Mbps is a good definition in 2022, then that is an acknowledgment that the demand for download broadband speed has grown at about 21% per year, which is shown in the table below.

Historic Download Speed Demand in Megabits / Second

2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
25 30 37 44 54 65 79 95

We have outside evidence that the 21% growth rate makes sense. Several times over the last decade, both Cisco and Opensignal opined that the residential demand for download speed has been growing at that same 21% rate. Cisco said that it thought business demand was growing at about a 23% clip.

This raises an interesting question of how good it is for a grant program today to use a 100 Mbps definition for broadband? The main reason that this is a relevant question is that the BEAD grants aren’t going to be constructed for many years. My best guess is that the majority of BEAD grants will be awarded in 2024, and ISPs will have four more years to finish network construction – until 2028. The above table shows how much broadband demand for download speed grew from 2015 until 2022. What might this look like by the time the BEAD networks are fully implemented?

Future Projected Download Speed Demand in Megabits / Second

2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2027 2028
100 121 146 177 214 259 314

If we accept that 100 Mbps download is adequate today as a definition of download broadband speed, then if broadband demand continues to grow at 21% annually, the definition of download broadband ought to be over 300 Mbps in 2028. I know many cynics will say that broadband demand cannot continue to grow at the historic rate, but those same people would have said the same thing in 2015 – and been proven wrong. In fact, there has been a steady growth curve for broadband speed demand back into the 1980s. There is no evidence I’ve heard that would indicate that the demand growth has slowed down.

We don’t really need to have this theoretical discussion of adequate broadband speeds because the market is ahead of the above speed growth curves. Since the early 2000s, cable companies have unilaterally raised the speed of basic broadband to keep ahead of the demand curve. The cable companies have raised minimum speeds every few years as an inexpensive way to keep customers happy with cable broadband.

The cable industry is in the process right now of increasing the speed of basic download speed to 200 Mbps – a number higher than predicted by the table above for 2022. There is a strong argument to be made that the cable companies have been resetting the definition of broadband while regulators were too timid to do so. I can remember when the cable companies collectively and unilaterally increased speeds to 6 Mbps. 12 Mbps, 30 Mbps, 60 Mbps, 100 Mbps, and now 200 Mbps.

This argument is further strengthened when considering that the big cable companies serve almost 70% of all broadband customers in the country today. When Congress gave the FCC responsibility for broadband in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the requirement that the FCC has largely shoved under the rug was that rural broadband should be in parity with urban broadband. If 70% of new broadband subscribers in the U.S. are offered 200 Mbps broadband as the slowest basic product, it’s hard to argue that having a definition of anything under 200 Mbps today is not parity.

Congress wasn’t all that brave in setting the definition of grant-eligible at 100/20 Mbps. That is the lowest possible current definition of download speeds, and a number that is already starting to drift to be obsolete. Recall the gnashing of teeth in the industry last year while the legislation was being created – cable companies and WISPs both thought that 100/20 Mbps was too aggressive.

If we really wanted to future-proof the BEAD grants, then technology that won’t be built until 2028 should be required to deliver at least 300 Mbps download. Anything less than that means networks that the public will feel are inadequate as they are being deployed.

An Easier Way to Define Broadband

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.

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.