On November 1, the FCC released a Notice of Inquiry that asks about various topics related to broadband deployment. One of the first questions asked is if the definition of broadband should be increased to 100/20 Mbps. I’ve written about this topic so many times over the years that writing this blog almost feels like déjà vu. Suffice it to say that the current FCC with a newly installed fifth Commissioner finally wants to increase the definition of broadband to 100/20 Mbps.
The NOI asks if that definition is sufficient for the way people use broadband today. Of most interest to me is the discussion of the proposed 20 Mbps definition of upload speed. Anybody who follows the industry knows that the use of 20 Mbps to define upload speeds is a political compromise that is not based upon anything other than extreme lobbying by the cable industry to not set the number higher. The NOI cites studies that say that 20 Mbps is not sufficient for households with multiple broadband users, yet the FCC still proposes to set the definition at 20 Mbps.
There are some other interesting questions being asked by the NOI. The FCC asks if it should rely on its new BDC broadband maps to assess the state of broadband – as if they have an option. The answer to anybody who digs deep into the mapping data is a resounding no, since there are still huge numbers of locations where speeds claimed in the FCC mapping are a lot higher than what is being delivered. The decision by the FCC to allow ISPs to report marketing speeds doomed the maps to be an ISP marketing tool rather than any accurate way to measure broadband deployment. It’s not hard to predict a time in a few years when huge numbers of people start complaining about being missed by the BEAD grants because of the inaccurate maps. But the FCC has little choice but to stick with the maps it has heavily invested it.
The NOI asks if the FCC should set a longer-term goal for future broadband speeds, like 1 Gbps/500 Mbps. This ignores the more relevant question about the next change in definition that should come after 100/20 Mbps. According to OpenVault, over 80% of U.S. homes already subscribe to download speeds of 200 Mbps or faster, and that suggests that 100 Mbps download is already behind the market. The NOI should be discussing when the definition ought to be increased to 200 or 300 Mbps download instead of a theoretical future definition change.
Setting a future theoretical speed goal is a feel-good exercise to make it sound like FCC policy will somehow influence the forward march of technology upgrades. This is exactly the sort of thing that talking-head policy folks do when they create 5-year and 10-year broadband plans. But I find it impossible to contemplate that the FCC will change the definition of broadband to gigabit speeds in the next decade, because doing so would be saying that every home that doesn’t have a gigabit option would not have broadband. Without that possibility, setting a high target goal is largely meaningless.
The NOI also asks if the FCC should somehow consider latency and packet loss – and the answer is that of course they should. However, they can’t completely punt on the issue like they do today when FCC grants and subsidies only require a latency under 100 milliseconds and set no standards for packet loss. Setting latency requirements that everybody except high-orbit satellites can easily meet is like having no standard at all.
Of interest to rural folks is a long discussion in the NOI about raising the definition of cellular broadband from today’s paltry 5/1 Mbps. Mobile speeds in most cities have download speeds today greater than 150 Mbps, often faster. The NOI suggests that a definition of mobile broadband ought to be something like 35/3 Mbps – something that is far slower than what a urban folks can already receive. But talking about a definition of mobile broadband ignores that any definition of mobile broadband is meaningless in the huge areas of the country where there is practically no mobile broadband coverage.
One of the questions I find most annoying asks if the FCC should measure broadband success by the number of ISPs available at a given location. This is the area where the FCC broadband maps are the most deficient. I wrote a recent blog that highlighted that seven or eight of the ten ISPs that claim coverage at my house aren’t real broadband options. Absolutely nobody is analyzing or challenging the maps for ISPs in cities that claim coverage that is either slower than claimed or doesn’t exist. But it’s good policy fodder for the FCC to claim that many folks in cities have a dozen broadband options. If it were only so.
Probably the most important question asked in the NOI is what the FCC should do about the millions of homes that can’t afford broadband. The FCC asks if it should adopt a universal service goal. This question has activated the lobbyists of the big ISPs who are shouting that the NOI is proof that the FCC wants to regulate and lower broadband rates. The big ISPs don’t even want the FCC to compile and publish data that compares broadband penetration rates to demographic data and household incomes. This NOI is probably not the right forum to ask that question – but solving the affordability gap affects far more households than the rural availability gap.
I think it’s a foregone conclusion that the FCC will use the NOI to adopt 100/20 Mbps as the definition of broadband. After all, the FCC is playing catchup to Congress, which essentially reset the definition of broadband to 100/20 Mbps two years ago in the BEAD grant legislation. The bigger question is if the FCC will do anything meaningful with the other questions asked in the NOI.