Setting the Definition of Broadband

One of the commenters on my blog asked a good question – can’t we set the definition of broadband by looking at the broadband applications used by the typical household? That sounds like a commonsense approach to the issue and is exactly what the FCC did when they set the definition of broadband to 25/3 Mbps in 2015. They looked at combinations of applications that a typical family of four might use in an evening, with the goal that a household ought to have enough broadband to comfortably do those functions at the same time. This might best be described as a technical approach to defining broadband – look at what households are really using and make sure that the definition of broadband is large enough to cover the expected usage for a typical household.

Taking this approach raises the bigger question – what should the policy be for setting the definition of broadband? I don’t know that I have any answers, but I ask the following questions:

  • The FCC largely conducted a thought experiment when setting the 25/3 definition of broadband – they didn’t try to measure the bandwidth used in the scenarios they considered. If the FCC had measured real homes doing those functions they likely would have found that bandwidth needs were different than they had estimated. Some functions use less bandwidth than they had supposed. But usage also would have been larger than they had calculated, because the FCC didn’t compensate for WiFi overheads and machine-to-machine traffic. As a household makes use of multiple simultaneous broadband functions, the WiFi networks we all use bog down when those applications collide with each other inside the home network. The busy-hour behavior of our home networks needs to be part of a mathematical approach to measuring broadband.
  • The FCC could have gotten a better answer had they hired somebody to measure evening broadband usage in a million homes. We know that broadband usage is like anything else and there are households that barely use broadband and others that use it intentsely. The idea of pinpointing the usage of a typical family is a quaint idea when what’s needed is to understand the curve of broadband usage – what’s the percentage of homes that are light, average, and heavy users. I’m sure that one of the big companies that track broadband usage could measure this somehow. But even after making such measurements we need a policy. Should the definition of broadband be set to satisfy the biggest broadband users, or something else like the medium speed used by households? Analytics can only go so far and at some point there has to be a policy. It’s not an easy policy to establish – if the definition of broadband is set anywhere below the fastest speeds used by households, then policy makers are telling some households that they use too much broadband.
  • If we are going to use measurements to determine the definition of broadband, then this also has to be an ongoing effort. If 25/3 was the right definition of broadband in 2015, how should that definition have changed when homes routinely started watching 4K video? I don’t think anybody can deny that households use more broadband each year, and homes use applications that are more data intensive. The household need for speed definitely increases over time, so any policy for setting a definition of broadband needs to recognize that the definition must grow over time.
  • One fact that is easy to forget is that the big cable companies now serve two-thirds of the broadband customers in the country, and any discussion we have about a definition of broadband is only considering how to handle the remaining one-third of broadband users. There is a good argument to be made that the cable companies already define the ‘market’ speed of broadband. The big cable companies all have minimum broadband speeds for new customers in urban markets today between 100 – 200 Mbps. The companies didn’t set these speeds in a vacuum. The cable companies have unilaterally increased speeds every 3-4 years in response to demands from their customers for faster speeds. I think there is a valid argument to be made that the market speeds used to serve two-thirds of the customers in the country should be the target broadband speed for everybody else. Any policymaker arguing that 25/3 Mbps should still be the definition of broadband is arguing that one-third of the country should settle for second-class broadband.
  • In a related argument I harken back to a policy discussion the FCC used to have when talking about broadband speeds. I can remember a decade or more ago when the FCC generally believed that rural broadband customers deserved to have access to the same speeds as urban customers. That policy was easy to support when cable networks and telco copper networks both delivered similar speeds. However, as cable broadband technology leaped ahead of copper and DSL, these discussion disappeared from the public discourse.
  • When looking at grant programs like the upcoming RDOF program, where the funded networks won’t be completed until 2027, any definition of broadband for the grants needs to look ahead to what the speeds might be like in 2027. Unfortunately, since we can’t agree on how to set the definition of broadband today, we have no context for talking about future speeds.

These are not easy questions. If the FCC was doing its job we would be having vigorous discussions on the topic. Sadly, I don’t foresee any real discussions at the FCC about the policy for setting the definition of broadband. The FCC has hunkered down and continues to support the 25/3 definition of broadband even when it’s clear that it’s grown obsolete. This FCC is unlikely to increase the definition of broadband, because in doing so they would be declaring that millions of homes have something less than broadband. It seems that our policy for setting the definition of broadband is to keep it where it is today because that’s politically expedient.

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.

Upgrading Broadband Speeds

A few weeks ago Charter increased my home broadband speeds from 60 Mbps to 130 Mbps with no change in price. My upload speed seems to be unchanged at 10 Mbps. Comcast is in the process of speed upgrades and is increasing base speeds to between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps download speeds in various markets.

I find it interesting that while the FCC is having discussions about keeping the definition of broadband at 25 Mbps that the big cable companies – these two alone have over 55 million broadband customers – are unilaterally increasing broadband speeds.

These companies aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, but for business reasons. First, I imagine that this is a push to sharpen the contrast with DSL. There are a number of urban markets where customers can buy 50 Mbps DSL from AT&T and others and this upgrade opens up a clear speed difference between cable broadband and DSL.

However, I think the main reason they are increasing speeds is to keep customers happy. This change was done quietly, so I suspect that most people had no idea that the change was coming. I also suspect that most people don’t regularly do speed tests and won’t know about the speed increase – but many of them will notice better performance.

One of the biggest home broadband issues is inadequate WiFi, with out-of-date routers or poor router placement degrading broadband performance. Pushing faster speeds into the house can overcome some of these WiFi issues.

This should be a wake-up call to everybody else in the industry to raise their speeds. There are ISPs and overbuilders all across the country competing against the giant cable companies and they need to immediately upgrade speeds or lose the public relations battle in the market place. Even those who are not competing against these companies need to take heed, because any web search is going to show consumers that 100 Mbps broadband or greater is now the new standard.

These unilateral changes make a mockery of the FCC. It’s ridiculous to be having discussions about setting the definition of broadband at 25 Mbps when the two biggest ISPs in the country have base product speeds 5 to 8 times faster than that. States with broadband grant programs also have the speed conversation and this will hopefully alert them that the new goal for broadband needs to be at least 100 Mbps.

These speed increases were inevitable. We’ve known for decades that the home demand for broadband has been doubling every three years. When the FCC first started talking about 25 Mbps as the definition of acceptable broadband, the math said that within six years we’d be having the same discussion about 100 Mbps broadband – and here we are having that discussion.

The FCC doesn’t want to recognize the speed realities in the world because they are required by law to try to bring rural speeds to be par with urban speeds. But this can’t be ignored because these speed increases are not just for bragging rights. We know that consumers find ways to fill faster data pipes. Just two years ago I saw articles wondering if there was going to be any market for 4K video. Today, that’s the first thing offered to me on both Amazon Prime and Netflix. They shoot all new programming in 4K and offer it at the top of their menus. It’s been reported that at the next CES electronics shows there will be several companies pushing commercially available 8K televisions. This technology is going to require a broadband connection between 60 Mbps and 100 Mbps depending upon the level of screen action. People are going to buy these sets and then demand programming to use them – and somebody will create the programming.

8K video is not the end game. Numerous companies are working on virtual presence where we will finally be able to converse with a hologram of somebody as if they were in the same room. Early versions of this technology, which ought to be available soon will probably use the same range of bandwidth as 8K video, but I’ve been reading about near-future technologies that will produce realistic holograms and that might require as much as a 700 Mbps connection – perhaps the first real need for gigabit broadband.

While improving urban data speeds is great, every increase in urban broadband speeds highlights the poor condition of rural broadband. While urban homes are getting 130 – 200 Mbps for decent prices there are still millions of homes with either no broadband or with broadband at speeds of 10 Mbps or less. The gap between urban and rural broadband is growing wider every year.

If you’ve been reading this blog you know I don’t say a lot of good things about the big cable companies. But kudos to Comcast and Charter for unilaterally increasing broadband speeds. Their actions speak louder than anything that we can expect out of the FCC.

Setting the FCC Definition of Broadband

In the recently released 2018 Broadband Progress Report the FCC reluctantly kept the official definition of broadband at 25/3 Mbps. I say reluctantly because three of the Commissioners were on record for either eliminating the standard altogether or else reverting back to the older definition of 10/1 Mbps.

I’m guessing the Commissioners gave in to a lot of public pressure to keep the 25/3 standard. Several Commissioners had also taken a public stance that they wanted to allow cellular data to count the same for a household as landline broadband – and that desire was a big factor in lowering the definition since cellphones rarely meet the 25/3 speed standard.

The deliberation on the topic this year raises the question if there is some way to create a rule that would better define the speed of needed broadband. It’s worth looking back to see how the Tom Wheeler FCC came up with the 25/3 definition. They created sample profiles of the way that households of various sizes are likely to want to use broadband. In doing so, they added together the bandwidth needed for various tasks such as watching a movie or supporting a cellphone.

But the FCC’s method was too simple and used the assumption that various simultaneous uses of broadband are additive. They added together the uses for a typical family of four which resulted in bandwidth needs greater than 20 Mbps download, and used that as the basis for setting the 25/3 standard. But that’s now home broadband works. There are several factors that affect the actual amount of bandwidth being used:

For example, doing simultaneous tasks on a broadband network increases the overhead on the home network. If you are watching a single Netflix stream, the amount of needed bandwidth is predictable and steady. But if three people in a home are each watching a different Netflix the amount of needed bandwidth is greater than adding together the three theoretical streams. When your ISP and your home router try to receive and untangle multiple simultaneous streams there are collisions of packets that get lost and which have to be retransmitted. This is described as adding ‘overhead’ to the transmission process. Depending on the nature of the data streams the amount of collision overhead can be significant.

Almost nobody directly wires the signal from their ISP directly too all of their devices. Instead we use WiFi to move data around to various devices in the home. A WiFi router has an overhead of its own that adds to the overall bandwidth requirement. As I’ve covered in other blogs, a WiFi network is not impacted only by the things you are trying to do in your home, but a WiFi network is slowed when it pauses to recognizes demands for connection from your neighbor’s WiFi network.

Any definition of home broadband needs should reflect these overheads. If a household actually tries to download 25 Mbps of usage from half a dozen sources at the same time on a 25 Mbps, the various overheads and collisions will nearly crash the system.

The FCC’s definition of broadband also needs to reflect the real world. For example, most of the unique programming created by Netflix and Amazon Prime are now available in 4K. I bought a large TV last year and we now watch 4K when it’s available. That means a stream of 15-20 Mbps download. That stream forced me to upgrade my home WiFi network to bring a router into the room with the TV.

The FCC’s speed definition finally needs to consider the busy hour of the day – the time when a household uses the most broadband. That’s the broadband speed that the home needs.

We know household bandwidth needs keep increasing. Ten years ago I was happy with a 5 Mbps broadband product. Today I have a 60 Mbps product that seems adequate, but I know from tests I did last year that I would be unhappy with a 25 Mbps connection.

The FCC needs a methodology that would somehow measure actual download speeds at a number of homes over time to understand what homes area really using for bandwidth. There are ways that this could be done. For example, the FCC could do something similar for broadband like what Nielsen does for cable TV. The FCC could engage one of the industry firms that monitor broadband usage such as Akamai to sample a large number of US homes. There could be sample voluntary homes that meet specific demographics that would allow monitoring of their bandwidth usage. The accumulated data from these sample homes would provide real-life bandwidth usage as a guide to setting the FCC’s definition of broadband. Rather than changing the official speed periodically, the FCC could change the definition as needed as dictated by the real-world data.

The FCC does some spot checking today of the broadband speeds as reported by the ISPs that feed the national broadband map. But that sampling is random and periodic and doesn’t provide the same kind of feedback that a formal ongoing measuring program would show. We have tools that could give the FCC the kind of feedback it needs. Of course, there are also political and other factors used in setting the official definition of broadband, and so perhaps the FCC doesn’t want real facts to get into the way.

The FCC Process

I recently wrote a blog that discussed the possibility that the FCC would change the definition of the speed that constitutes broadband. I got a number of inquiries from readers asking how this could happen outside of the scope of the formal rulemaking process. Specifically, I had reported on the rumor that the FCC was likely to make this decision by February 3, which is not one of the dates when the FCC formally holds open meetings and votes on changes to FCC rules. Today I’m going to try to shed some light on how the FCC makes decisions, which will hopefully clarify the issue.

The FCC has several paths to make decisions. The one that the industry is most familiar with is the rulemaking process. The basic process for rulemaking for all administrative government agencies was created with the Administrative Procedure Act in 1946. This Act defined a process of changing federal rules that mandates getting feedback from the public.

The FCC might consider changing rules for several reasons. Some rule changes are mandated by Congress, with one of the more recent such FCC actions being in response to changes in consumer privacy rules. The FCC can also start a rulemaking in response to a petition asking for a clarification of the rules. In the past such petitions often came from the large carriers or else from state regulators. Finally, the FCC can simply identify an industry problem on their own and begin the rulemaking process to seek possible solutions.

The FCC then has several tools available to facilitate the rulemaking process:

  • One tool available to the FCC is the NOI (Notice of Inquiry). This can be done when the FCC is trying to understand an issue and the possible solutions.
  • But the NOI process is not mandatory and the agency can move directly to an NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking). This is a formal document that proposes specific rule changes. There is a defined minimum timeline for this process that includes time for the public to comment and for a second round of reply comments, if needed. During this process the FCC might allow ex parte meetings from interested parties, hold public meetings to solicit feedback or engage with industry experts to get feedback on their proposals.
  • Finally, some dockets proceed to an FNPRM (Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking). This tool is used when the comments on an NPRM cause the FCC to consider a different solution than what they originally proposed. This also then goes through the public comment process.

But not everything done at the FCC goes through the rulemaking process. For example, one of the mandated functions of the FCC is acting to adjudicate industry disputes. Industry parties that disagree on the interpretation of existing FCC rules can ask the agency to clarify – and in the case the agency takes on a nearly judicial role in looking at the facts of a specific case.

Finally, the FCC has a major administrative function. The agency has to make numerous policy decisions in order to meet its mandates from Congress. A simple way to think about this is that the rulemaking process creates formal rule changes. But then the agency must develop the processes and policies to make the new rules function. The FCC spends a lot of time on these administrative functions. For example, holding auctions for spectrum is an administrative function. Deciding how to fund and administer the Universal Service Fund is an administrative function. Approving new telecom and wireless devices is an administrative function.

The decision in the past to define the speed of broadband was an administrative decision. The agency has wide discretion to arbitrarily define administrative rules, but they often ask for public feedback.

The speed of broadband has been discussed at the FCC in several different contexts. First, the FCC has administered several grant programs and they decided that it was in the public good to set minimum broadband speeds for various grant programs. For example, the CAF II program requires the large telcos to deploy technology that delivers at least 10/1 Mbps. But there have been other speed requirements for other grant programs and the ‘experimental grants’ of a few years ago looked to fund technologies that delivered at least 100 Mbps download.

But the primary reason that the FCC decided they needed to define broadband using speeds was due to a mandate from Congress for the FCC is to report once per year on the state of broadband in the country. The Congress wants to know how many people have, or do not have broadband. Past FCCs decided that a definition of broadband was needed in order to create a meaningful report to Congress. They initially set the definition of broadband at 10/1 Mbps and later raised it to 25/3 Mbps. And they purposefully have excluded cellular broadband as not being broadband.

In anticipation of each annual broadband report the FCC sometimes asks questions of the public. They did so last year in an NOI where they asked if the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband is too high. And they asked if cellular broadband ought to now be counted as broadband. This NOI is issued only for factfinding and to solicit public opinion on the topic. But the speed of broadband is an administrative decision of the agency, meaning that there are not formal rules associated with setting or changing the definition of broadband. The agency is free to make changes at any time to these kinds of administrative definitions. In the past the definition of broadband speeds was included with the annual broadband reports issued to Congress. And the anticipation is that the agency will use this same mechanism this year. There is no formal docket open on the topic and thus no formal and public vote is required. The FCC might or might not change the definition of broadband, but as my blog conjectured, the consensus of industry experts is that they are likely to do so. But we’ll have to wait for the annual broadband report to see if they actually lower the definition of broadband speeds or add cellular data to the definition.

How Much Speed Do We Really Need?

There is a lot of buzz floating around in the industry that the FCC might lower the official definition of broadband from 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. Two of the current FCC commissioners including the chairman opposed setting that definition a few years back. Lowering the speeds would let the FCC off the hook for the requirement by law to make sure that the whole country can get broadband. If they lower the definition, then voila, millions more Americans would be declared to have adequate broadband.

So today I thought I’d take a look at the download speeds we really need at our homes. You may recall that back when the FCC set the 25/3 Mbps definition that they made a list of the broadband speed needed to do typical activities. And in doing so they tried to create profiles of some typical American households. That attempt was awkward, but it was a good starting point for examining household bandwidth needs. I’m updating their list a bit for things that people do today, which is already different than just a few years ago. Consider the following web activities:

  • Web Background 5 Mbps
  • Web Browsing 1 – 2 Mbps
  • Online Class 1 – 2 Mbps
  • Social Media 1 – 2 Mbps
  • Streaming Music 3 Mbps
  • Voice over IP 2 Mbps
  • SD Video stream 1 – 3 Mbps
  • HD Video Stream 4 – 6 Mbps
  • 4K Video Stream 15 – 20 Mbps
  • Gaming 1 – 3 Mbps
  • Skype / Video Conference 1 – 3 Mbps
  • Big File Downloader 50 Mbps

People don’t agree with all of these listed speeds because there are no standards for how the web works. For example, by using different compression schemes a video stream from Netflix is not identical to one from Amazon. And even from one source there is variation since an action move takes more bandwidth than something like a stand-up comedy routine.

It’s important to remember that broadband demand can come from any device in your house – desktop, laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc. It’s also important to note that these are speed requirements for a single user. If two people in the house are watching an separate video, then you have to double the above number.

What the FCC failed to consider back when they set the speed definition is that households need enough bandwidth to handle the busiest times of the day. What matters is the number of simultaneous activities a home can do at the same time on the web, with most families being busiest in the evenings. There might be somebody on social media, somebody watching an HD movie, while somebody else is doing homework while also using a smartphone to swap pictures.

There is another issue to consider when trying to do simultaneous tasks on the Internet – packet loss. The connection between the ISP and a customer gets more congested when it’s trying to process multiple data streams at the same time. Engineers describe this as packet collision – which sounds like some kind of bumper-car ride – but it’s an apt way to describe the phenomenon. Most home routers are not sophisticated enough to simultaneously handle too many multiple streams at once. Packets get misdirected or lost and the router requests the missing packets to be sent again from the originator. The busier the router, the more packet interference. This is also sometimes called ‘overhead’ in the industry and this overhead can easily grow to 15% or more of the total traffic on a busy connection, meaning it takes 15% more bandwidth to complete a task than if that task was the only thing occurring on the broadband connection.

There is another kind of interference that happens in homes that have a WiFi network. This is a different kind of interference that has to do with the way that WiFi works. When a WiFi network gets multiple requests for service, meaning that many devices in the home are asking for packets, the WiFi router gets overwhelmed easily and shuts down. It then reinitiates and sends packets to the first device that gets its attention. In a busy network environment the WiFi router will shut down and restart constantly as it tries to satisfy the many needed devices. This kind of interference was designed into the WiFi specification as a way to ensure that WiFi could satisfy the needs of multiple devices. This WiFi overhead can also easily add 15% or more to the network demand.

Anybody who lives in a home with active users understands how networks can get overwhelmed. How many of you have been frustrated trying to watch a movie when others in the house are using the Internet? Even big bandwidth can be overwhelmed. I have a friend who has a 100 Mbps fiber connection on Verizon FiOS. He went to watch a video and it wouldn’t stream. He found that his two teenage sons were each using half a dozen gaming streams at the same time and had basically exhausted his fast bandwidth pipe.

The FCC can tinker with the official definition of broadband since that is their prerogative. But what they can’t do is to define for any given home how much bandwidth they really need. The funny thing is that the big ISPs all understand this issue. The cable companies have unilaterally increased speeds across-the-board to urban customers several times in recent years and in most markets offer speeds considerably faster than the current FCC definition of broadband. These ISPs know that if they were only delivering 25 Mbps that they would be overwhelmed with customers complaining about the connection. Those complaints are the real proof of how much bandwidth many homes need. If the FCC lowers the definition of broadband then they have on blinders and are ignoring how homes really use broadband today. If they lower the speed definition it’s hard to see it as anything other than a political move.

If You Think You Have Broadband, You Might be Wrong

Speed_Street_SignThe FCC has published the following map that shows which parts of the country they think have 25 Mbps broadband available. That is the new download speed that the FCC recently set as the definition of broadband. On the map, the orange and yellow places have access to the new broadband speed and the blue areas do not. What strikes you immediately is that the vast majority of the country looks blue on the map.

The first thing I did, which is probably the same thing you will do, is to look at my own county. I live in Charlotte County, Florida. The map shows that my town of Punta Gorda has broadband, and we do. I have options up to 110 Mbps with Comcast and I think up to 45 Mbps from CenturyLink (not sure of the exact speed they can actually deliver). I bought a 50 Mbps cable modem from Comcast, and they deliver the speed I purchased.

Like a lot of Florida, most of the people in my County live close to the water. And for the most parts the populated areas have access to 25 Mbps. But there are three urban areas in the County that don’t, which are parts of Charlotte Beach, parts of Harbor View and an area called Burnt Store.

I find the map of interest because when I moved here a little over a year ago I considered buying in Burnt Store. The area has many nice houses on large lots up to five acres. I never got enough interest in any particular house there to consider buying, but if I had, I would not have bought once I found there was no fast broadband. I don’t think I am unusual in having fast Internet as one of the requirements I want at a new home. One has to think that in today’s world that housing prices will become depressed in areas without adequate Internet, particularly if they are close to an area that has it.

The other thing that is obvious on the map of my county is that the rural areas here do not have adequate broadband, much like most rural areas in the country. By eyeball estimate it looks like perhaps 70% of my county, by area, does not have broadband as defined by the FCC. Some of that area is farms, but there are also a lot of large homes and horse ranches in those areas. The map tells me that in a county with 161,000 people that over 10,000 people don’t have broadband. Our percentage of broadband coverage puts us far ahead of most of the rest of the country, although the people without broadband here probably don’t feel too lucky.

I contrast the coasts of Florida by looking at the Midwest. In places like Nebraska it looks like nobody outside of decent sized towns has broadband. There are numerous entire counties in Nebraska where nobody has access to 25 Mbps broadband. And that is true throughout huge swaths of the Midwest and West.

There are pockets of broadband that stick out on the map. For example, there is a large yellow area in rural Washington State. This is due to numerous Public Utility Districts, which are county-wide municipal electric systems, which have built fiber networks. What is extraordinary about their story is that by Washington law they are not allowed to offer retail services, and instead offer wholesale access to their networks to retail ISPs. It’s a hard business plan to make work, and still a significant amount of fiber has been built in the area.

And even though much of the map is blue, one thing to keep in mind that the map is overly optimistic and overstates the availability of 25 Mbps broadband. That’s because the database supporting this map comes from the National Broadband Map, and the data in the map is pretty unreliable. The speeds shown in the map are self-reported by the carriers who sell broadband, and they frequently overstate where they have coverage of various speeds.

Let’s use the example of rural DSL since the delivered speed of that technology drops rapidly with distance. If a telco offers 25 Mbps DSL in a small rural town, by the time that DSL travels even a mile out of town it is going to be at speeds significantly lower than 25 Mbps. And by 2–3 miles out of town it will crawl at a few Mbps at best or not even work at all. I have helped people map DSL coverage areas by knocking on doors and the actual coverage of DSL speeds around towns looks very different than what is shown on this map.

Many of the telcos claim the advertised speed of their DSL for the whole area where it reaches. They probably can deliver the advertised speeds at the center of the network near to the DSL hub (even though sometimes this also seems to be an exaggeration). But the data supplied to the National Broadband Map might show the same full-speed DSL miles away from the hub, when in fact the people at the end of the DSL service area might be getting DSL speeds that are barely above dial-up.

So if this map was accurate, it would show a greater number of people who don’t have 25 Mbps broadband available. These people live within a few miles of a town, but that means they are usually outside the cable TV network area and a few miles or more away from a DSL hub. There must be many millions of people that can’t get this speed, in contradiction to the map.

But the map has some things right, like when it shows numerous counties in the country where not even one household can get 25 Mbps. That is something I can readily believe.

Telemedicine Needs Big Bandwidth

Medical_Software_Logo,_by_Harry_GouvasThe Federal Government is a big believer in telemedicine and there are several branches of the government that have been vigorously pursuing it as a way to better treat patients. Some of these initiatives include:

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs kicked off their telehealth program in 2011 named Special Care Access Network – Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes (SCAN-ECHO). This program is aimed at providing care to veterans without requiring them to travel to a VA hospital. In some parts of the country VA hospitals are widely scattered and the VA knows that a lot of doctor visits are routine and can be handed adequately through telemedicine links.
  • The Department of Defense started working on a telemedicine program almost two decades ago for use on the battlefield. Their telemedicine links allow specialists to weigh in on battlefield injuries along with field medics, and they had great results in Iraq and Afghanistan. The DoD has named their system ECHO and has recently licensed it to Kaiser Permanente. The hospital chain sees use of the technology to field triage accident victims and to use for their patients who can’t make it to a hospital.
  • The Air Force has been working on a focused telemedicine program for the last four years. Instead of working on remotely treating patients, which is being pioneered by others, they have been focused on four specific areas within teleimaging: teleradiology, telecardiology, tele-endoscopy and telepathology. In a nutshell they are working with field devices that can create the diagnostic images that telemedicine doctors need to better treat field injuries. This would provide more detailed diagnostics for accident victims and remote patients who can’t easily get to a hospital.

Telemedicine is a priority for the Veterans Administration which reports that they are today treating 380,000 vets who live in rural areas. They have nearly 11,000 veteran patients now using the VA’s tele-audiology system, but they would like to greatly expand their telemedicine capabilities.

What all of these programs have come to realize is that the broadband in rural America is not adequate for what they are trying to do. One thing every one of the above efforts needs is big broadband capacity to connect to patients through video links or to transmit gigantic imaging files.

The military is used to having big broadband on the battlefield. We tend to think of satellite data links as small bandwidth and slow connections, but satellites can download significant bandwidth pipes with the right receivers and at the right price. I would assume (but don’t know) that the military has their own data satellites in orbit to provide bandwidth on the battlefield.

So these agencies are adding their voice to the cry for better rural broadband, which is the primary place where intensive telemedicine technologies are most needed. As these agencies are moving battlefield-tested technology into the civilian world they are bumping up against the same rural bandwidth limits that others have been seeing for years.

Just last week the FCC boldly increased the definition or broadband in the country to 25 Mbps download and 4 Mbps upload. According to the FCC’s numbers this means that 55 million Americans, or 17 percent of the population do not have access to broadband.

If you have followed my blog you know that I think the number is even higher than that since the FCC’s estimate is based upon a very flawed National Broadband Map, which is populated by the carriers. But one can be pretty certain that the vast majority of the people who can’t get the FCC’s newly defined broadband live in rural areas.

I have worked for years with rural communities and the lack of broadband has some real life repercussions for the people living there. There are numerous rural communities without hospitals, without doctors and without universities, and the people who live in these remote places have to undertake long drives to do things the rest of us consider as routine like see a doctor or take a class.

Telemedicine has a huge potential for diagnosing and treating rural patients. It is already being used worldwide to bring modern healthcare into remote communities. But I find it sad that many places in our own country can’t have this great technology due to the lack of broadband infrastructure.

How Should the US Define Broadband?

FCC_New_LogoThe FCC just released the Tenth Broadband Progress Notice of Inquiry. As one would suppose by the title there have been nine other of these in the past. This inquiry is particularly significant because the FCC is asking if it’s time to raise the FCC’s definition of broadband.

The quick and glib answer is that of course they should. After all, the current definition of broadband is 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. I think almost everybody will agree that this amount of bandwidth is no longer adequate for an average family. But the question the FCC is wrestling with is how high they should raise it.

There are several consequences of raising the definition of bandwidth that have to be considered. First is the purely political one. For example, if they were to raise it to 25 Mbps download, then they would be declaring that most of rural America doesn’t have broadband. There are numerous rural town in the US that are served by DSL or by DOCSIS 1.0 cable modems that have speeds of 6 Mbps download or slower. Even if the FCC sets the new definition at 10 Mbps they are going to be declaring that big portions of the country don’t have broadband.

And there are consequences of that definition beyond the sheer embarrassment of the country openly recognizing that the rural parts of America have slow connectivity. The various parts of the federal government use the definition of what is broadband when awarding grants and other monies to areas that need to get faster broadband. Today, with the definition set at 4 Mbps those monies are tending to go to very rural areas where there is no real broadband. If the definition is raised enough those monies could instead go to the rural county seats that don’t have very good broadband. And that might mean that the people with zero broadband might never get served, at least through the help of federal grants.

The next consideration is how this affects various technologies. I remember when the FCC first set the definition of broadband at 3 Mbps download and 768 Kbps upload. At that time many thought that they intended to shovel a lot of money to cellular companies to serve broadband in rural areas. But when we start talking about setting the definition of broadband at 10 Mbps download or faster, then a number of technologies start falling off the list as being able to support broadband.

For example, in rural areas it is exceedingly hard, if not impossible, to have a wireless network, either cellular or using unlicensed spectrum, that can serve every customer in a wide area with speeds of 10 Mbps. Customer close to towers can get fast speeds, but for all wireless technologies the speed drops quickly with the distance from a tower. And it is also exceedingly hard to use DSL to bring broadband to rural areas with a target of 10 Mbps. The speed on DSL also drops quickly with distance, which is why there not much coverage of DSL in rural areas today.

And when you start talking about 25 Mbps as the definition of broadband then the only two technologies that can reliably deliver that are fiber and coaxial cable networks. Both are very expensive to build to areas that don’t have them, and one wonders what the consequences would be of setting the definition that high.

The one thing I can tell you from practical experience is that 10 Mbps is not fast enough for many families like mine. We happen to be cord cutters and we thus get all of our entertainment from the web. It is not unusual to have 3 – 4 devices in our house watching video, while we also surf the web, do our daily data backups, etc. I had a 10 Mbps connection that was totally inadequate for us and am lucky enough to live where I could upgrade to a 50 Mbps cable modem service that works well for us.

So I don’t envy the FCC this decision. They are going to get criticized no matter what they do. If they just nudge the definition up a bit, say to 6 or 7 Mbps, then they are going to be rightfully criticized for not promoting real broadband. If they set it at 25 Mbps then all of the companies that deploy technologies that can’t go that fast will be screaming bloody murder. We know this because the FCC recently used 25 Mbps as the minimum speed in order to qualify for $75 million of their experimental grants. That speed locked out a whole lot of companies that were hoping to apply for those grants. They might not have a lot of choice but to set it at something like 10 Mbps as a compromise. This frankly is still quite a wimpy goal for a Commission that approved the National Broadband Plan a few years ago that talked about promoting gigabit speeds. But it would be progress in the right direction and maybe by the Twentieth Broadband Inquiry we will be discussing real broadband.