Lowering the Official Speed of Broadband

The FCC’s intention to kill net neutrality is getting all of the headlines, but there is another quieter battle going on at the FCC that has even bigger implications for rural America.

The last FCC under Chairman Tom Wheeler raised the definition of broadband in 2015 to 25/3 Mbps, up from the archaic definition of 4/1. In doing so the FCC set the speed based upon the way that an average household uses broadband. At the time many people argued that the FCC’s way of measuring broadband need was somewhat contrived – and perhaps it was because it’s really a challenge to define how much broadband a home needs. It’s not as easy as just adding up the various web connections as I described in a recent blog.

The FCC is now considering lowering the definition of broadband down to 10/1 Mbps. That would be a dagger to the heart of rural broadband, as I will discuss below.

One only has to look at the big ISPs to see that the FCC is ignoring the realities of the market. The big cable companies have all set minimum broadband speeds above the 25/3 Mbps current FCC broadband definition. Charter’s base broadband product for a new customer is 60 Mbps. Depending upon the market Comcast’s base speeds are 50 Mbps or 75 Mbps. AT&T says they are starting to back out of their DSL business because their fastest U-verse product only has speeds up to 50 Mbps. These big ISPs all get it and they know that customers are only happy with their broadband connection when it works without problems. And providing more speed than 25/3 Mbps is how these companies are satisfying that customer demand.

Unfortunately the FCC’s definition of broadband has huge real life implications. The big urban ISPs won’t change what they are doing, but a lower threshold could kill attempts to improve rural broadband. The FCC has a mandate from Congress to take steps to make sure that everybody in the country has adequate broadband. When the FCC increased the definition to 25/3 Mbps they instantly recognized that 55 million people didn’t have broadband. And that forced them to take steps to fix the problem. Since 2015 there has been a lot of rural broadband construction and upgrades made by cable networks in small town America and the latest estimates I’ve seen say that the number of those without 25/3 Mbps broadband is now down to around 39 million. That’s still a lot of people.

If the current FCC lowers the definition to 10/1 Mbps then many of those 39 million people will instantly be deemed to have broadband after all. That would take the FCC off the hook to try to solve the rural broadband gap. To really show that this is just a political decision, the FCC is also contemplating counting a cellular broadband connection as an acceptable form of broadband. In doing so they will then be able to declare that anybody that can get this new slower speed on a cellphone has an adequate broadband solution.

Of course, when I say this is all just politics there are those that said the same thing when the Wheeler FCC raised the definition to 25/3 Mbps. At that time critics might have been right. In 2015 there were a lot of homes that were happy with speeds less than 25/3 Mbps and that definition might have been a little bit of a stretch for the average home.

But when you take all of the politics out of it, the reality is that the amount of broadband that homes need keeps growing. Any attempt to define broadband will be obsolete within a few years as broadband usage continues on the path of doubling every three years. A home that needed 15 or 20 Mbps download in 2015 might now easily need more than 25/3 Mbps. That’s how the math behind geometric growth is manifested. .

It is disheartening to see the FCC playing these kinds of political games. They only need to go visit any rural kid trying to do homework to understand that 10/1 Mbps broadband on a cellphone is not broadband. The FCC only needs to go talk to somebody in rural America who can’t take a good-paying work-at-home job because they don’t have good broadband. They only need to go and talk to farmers who are losing productivity due to lack of a good broadband connection. And they only need to talk to rural homeowners who can’t find a buyer for their home that doesn’t have broadband.

This is too critical of an economic issue for the country to let the definition of broadband change according to the politics of the administration in office. Rather than political haggling over the official definition of broadband we ought to try something new. For example, we could set a goal that rural America ought to at least have half of the average speeds of broadband available in urban America. Using some kind of metric that people can understand would take the politics out of this. This is a metric that companies like Akamai already quantify and measure. The amount of broadband that homes needs is a constantly growing figure and pinning it down with one number is always going to be inadequate. So maybe it’s time to remove politics from the issue and make it fact based.

A New FCC Definition of Broadband?

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires that the FCC annually review broadband availability in the country. Further, that section of law then requires the FCC to take immediate action if they find that broadband is not being deployed fast enough. This is the law that in the past prompted the FCC to set a definition of broadband – first set at 4/1 Mbps a decade ago then updated to 25/3 Mbps in 2015. The FCC felt it couldn’t measure broadband deployment without a benchmark.

In this year’s annual proceeding the FCC has suggested a change in the definition of broadband. They are suggesting there should be a minimum benchmark of 10/1 Mbps used to define cellular broadband. That doesn’t sound like a bad idea since almost everybody uses cellular broadband at times and it would be good to know that the cellular companies have a speed target to shoot for.

But I am alarmed at how the FCC wants to use the new proposed cellular broadband standard. They are suggesting that cellular service that meets the 10/1 Mbps standard can be considered as a substitute for a landline broadband connection that meets the 25/3 Mbps test. This would represent a huge policy shift at the FCC because use of the cellular standard would allow them to claim that most Americans can get broadband. And that would eliminate them having to take any action to make broadband better in the country.

We can’t be particularly surprised by this shift in policy because now-Chairman Ajit Pai vociferously objected when the FCC increased the definition of broadband in January 2015 to 25/3 Mbps. He argued at the time that the speed definition of broadband should not be increased and that both satellite and cellular broadband ought to be considered as substitutes for landline broadband.

But as almost anybody with a broadband connection can tell you, speed is not the only parameter that matters with a broadband connection. Speed matters for folks in a busy broadband home like mine when different family members are trying to make simultaneous broadband connections. But even homes with lower broadband needs care about more than speed. The limiting factor with cellular data is the stingy amount of total downloads allowed in a month. The new ‘unlimited’ cellular plans are capped at 20 to 25 gigabytes per month. And satellite data not only has stingy data caps but also suffers from latency issues that means that a satellite customer can’t take part in any real-time activity on the web such as VoIP, distance learning or live streaming video.

There are several possible motives for this policy shift. First, this could just be an attempt by the FCC to take off the pressure of having to promote faster broadband everywhere. If their annual Section 706 examination concludes that most people in the country have broadband then they don’t have to push expensive federal programs to expand broadband coverage. But there is also the potential motive that this has been prompted by the cellular companies that want even more federal money to expand their rural cellular networks. AT&T has already been given billions in the CAF II proceeding to largely improve rural cellular towers.

Regardless of the motivation this would be a terrible policy shift. It would directly harm two huge groups of people – rural America and the many urban pockets without good broadband. This ruling would immediately mean that all urban areas would be considered to have broadband today along with a lot of rural America.

I don’t think this FCC has any concept of what it’s like living in rural America. There are already millions of households that already use cellular or satellite broadband. I’ve heard countless stories from households with schoolkids who spend upwards of $500 per month for cellular broadband – and even at that price these homes closely monitor and curtail broadband usage.

There are also huge swaths of rural America that barely have cellular voice service let alone 10/1 Mbps cellular broadband. I was recently in north-central Washington state and drove for over an hour with zero AT&T cell coverage. But even where there is cellular voice service the quality of broadband diminishes with distance from a cell tower. People living close by a tower might get okay cellular data speeds, but those even just a few miles away get greatly diminished broadband.

I know that Chairman Pai has two kids at home in Arlington Virginia. There he surely has fast broadband available from Comcast, and if he’s lucky he also has a second fast alternative from Verizon FiOS. Before the Chairman decides that cellular broadband ought to be a substitute for a landline connection I would challenge him to cut off his home broadband connection and use only cellular service for a few months. That would give him a taste of what it’s like living in rural America.