On July 25, Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel shared with the other FCC Commissioners a draft Notice of Inquiry that would begin the process of raising the federal definition of broadband from 25/3 Mbps to 100/20 Mbps. In order for that to become the new definition, the FCC must work through the NOI process and eventually vote to adopt the higher speed definition.
This raises a question of the purpose of having a definition of broadband. That requirement comes from Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that requires that the FCC make sure that broadband is deployed on a reasonable and timely basis to everybody in the country. The FCC interpreted that requirement to mean that it couldn’t measure broadband deployment unless it created a definition of broadband. The FCC uses its definition of broadband to count the number of homes that have or don’t have broadband.
The FCC is required by the Act to report the status of broadband deployment to Congress every year. During the last week of Ajit Pai’s time as FCC Chairman, he issued both the 2020 and 2021 broadband reports to Congress. Those reports painted a rosy picture of U.S. broadband, partially because progress was measured using 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband and partially because the FCC broadband maps were rife with overstated speeds. The FCC has not issued a report since then, and I can only suppose there aren’t the votes in an evenly split FCC to approve a new report.
To give credit, Chairwoman Rosenworcel tried to get the FCC to increase the definition of broadband to 100/20 Mbps four years ago, but the idea went nowhere in the Ajit Pai FCC. At that time, 100/20 Mbps seemed like a reasonable increase in the definition of broadband. Most cable companies were delivering 100 Mbps download as the basic product, and a definition set at 100/20 Mbps would have made the federal statement that the speeds that most folks buy in cities is a reasonable definition of broadband for everybody else.
Chairwoman Rosenworcel is now ready to try again to raise the definition. Perhaps the possible addition of a fifth Commissioner means this has a chance of passing.
But this is now too little too late. 100/20 Mbps is no longer a reasonable definition of broadband. In the four years since Chairwoman Rosenworcel introduced that idea, the big cable companies have almost universally increased the starting speed for broadband to 300 Mbps download. According to OpenVault, almost 90% of all broadband customers now subscribe to broadband packages of 100 Mbps or faster. 75% of all broadband customers subscribe to speeds of at least 200 Mbps. 38% of households now subscribe to speeds of 500 Mbps or faster.
I have to think that the definition of broadband needs to reflect the broadband that most people in the country are really using. One of the secondary uses of the FCC broadband definition is that it establishes a goal for bringing rural areas into parity with urban broadband. If 75% of all broadband subscribers in the country have already moved to something faster than 200 Mbps, then 100 Mbps feels like a speed that is already in the rearview mirror and is rapidly receding.
When the 25/3 definition of broadband was adopted in 2015, I thought it was a reasonable definition at the time. Interestingly, when I first read that FCC order, I happened to be sitting in a restaurant that was lucky enough to be able to buy gigabit speeds and was sharing it with customers. I knew from that experience that the 25/3 Mbps definition was going to become quickly obsolete because it was obvious that we were on the verge of seeing technology increases that were going to bring much faster speed.
I think the FCC should issue two broadband definitions – one for measuring broadband adoption today and a second definition as a target speed for a decade from now. That future broadband target speed should be the minimum speed required for projects funded by federal grants. It seems incredibly shortsighted to be funding any technology that only meets today’s speed definition instead of the speeds that will be needed when the new network will be fully subscribed. Otherwise, we are building networks that are too slow before they are even finished construction.
Another idea for the FCC to consider could take politics out of the speed definition. Let’s index the definition of broadband using something like the OpenVault speed statistics, or perhaps the composite statistics of several firms that gather such data. Indexing speeds would mean automatic periodic increases to the definition of broadband. If we stick to the current way of defining broadband, we might see the increase in the federal definition of broadband to 100/20 at the end of this year and won’t see another increase for another eight years.