The Definition of Broadband

When the FCC set the definition of broadband at 25/3 Mbps in January of 2015, I thought it was a reasonable definition. At the time the FCC said that 25/3 Mbps was the minimum speed that defined broadband, and anything faster than 25/3 Mbps was considered to be broadband, and anything slower wasn’t broadband.

2015 was forever ago in terms of broadband usage and there have been speed increases across the industry since then. All of the big cable companies have unilaterally increased their base broadband speeds to between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps. Numerous small telcos have upgraded their copper networks to fiber. Even the big telcos have increased speeds in rural America through CAF II upgrades that increased speeds to 10/1 Mbps – and the telcos all say they did much better in some places.

The easiest way to look at the right definition of broadband today is to begin with the 25/3 Mbps level set at the beginning of 2015. If that was a reasonable definition at the beginning of 2015, what’s a reasonable definition today? Both Cisco and Ookla track actual speeds achieved by households and both say that actual broadband speeds have been increasing nationally about 21% annually. Apply a 21% annual growth rate to the 25 Mbps download speeds set in 2015 would predict that the definition of broadband today should be 54 Mbps:

2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
25 30 37 44 54

We also have a lot of anecdotal evidence that households want faster speeds. Households have been regularly bailing on urban DSL and moving to faster cable company broadband. A lot of urban DSL can be delivered at speeds between 25 and 50 Mbps, and many homes are finding that to be inadequate. Unfortunately, the big telcos aren’t going to provide the detail needed to understand this phenomenon, but it’s clearly been happening on a big scale.

It’s a little sketchier to apply this same logic to upload speeds. There was a lot of disagreement about using the 3 Mbps download speed standard established in 2015. It seems to have been set to mollify the cable companies that wanted to assign most of their bandwidth to download. However, since 2015 most of the big cable companies have upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1 and they can now provide significantly faster uploads. My home broadband was upgraded by Charter in 2018 from 60/6 Mbps to 135/20 Mbps. It seems ridiculous to keep upload speed goals low, and if I was magically put onto the FCC, I wouldn’t support an upload speed goal of less than 20 Mbps.

You may recall that the FCC justified the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband by looking at the various download functions that could be done by a family of four. The FCC examined numerous scenarios that considered uses like video streaming, surfing the web, and gaming. The FCC scenario was naive because they didn’t account for the fact that the vast majority of homes use WiFi. Most people don’t realize that WiFi networks generate a lot of overhead due to collisions of data streams – particularly when a household is trying to do multiple big bandwidth applications at the same time. When I made my judgment about the 25/3 Mbps definition back in 2015, I accounted for WiFi overheads and I still thought that 25/3 Mbps was a reasonable definition for the minimum speed of broadband.

Unfortunately, this FCC is never going to unilaterally increase the definition of broadband, because by doing so they would reclassify millions of homes as not having broadband. The FCC’s broadband maps are dreadful, but even with the bad data, it’s obvious that if the definition of broadband was 50/20 Mbps today that a huge number of homes would fall below that target.

The big problem with the failure to recognize the realities of household broadband demand is that the FCC is using the already-obsolete definition of 25/3 Mbps to make policy decisions. I have a follow-up blog to this one that will argue that using that speed as the definition of the upcoming $20.4 billion RDOF grants will be as big of a disaster as the prior FCC decision to hand out billions to upgrade to 10/1 Mbps DSL in the CAF II program.

The fact that household broadband demand grows over time is not news. We have been on roughly the same demand curve growth since the advent of dial-up. It’s massively frustrating to see politics interfere with what is a straight engineering issue. As homes use more broadband, particularly when they want to do multiple broadband tasks at the same time, their demand for faster broadband grows. I can understand that no administration wants to recognize that things are worse than they want them to be – so they don’t want to set the definition of broadband at the right speed. But it’s disappointing to see when the function of the FCC is supposed to be to make sure that America gets the broadband infrastructure it needs. If the agency was operated by technologists instead of political appointees we wouldn’t even be having this debate.