The Definition of Upload Speed

The FCC is in the process of increasing the definition of broadband from today’s paltry 25/3 Mbps to 100/20 Mbps. This blog looks at the FCC’s decision to consider 20 Mbps as the definition of upload.

We know where the 20 Mbps number comes from. Early discussions of the BEAD grant rules considered that grant-eligible areas would be anywhere that customers don’t have the option to purchase broadband with speeds of at least 100/100 Mbps. But cable companies and the wireless industry went ballistic, and there was furious lobbying to lower the BEAD coverage definition to 100/20 Mbps. The reason for this was obvious since both technologies at the time could meet the 100 Mbps download speed but could not meet a 100 Mbps upload speed requirement.

This means that the 20 Mbps definition is a political compromise that has nothing to do with the broadband speeds that households and businesses need. Interestingly, technology in those two industries is changing quickly, and cable companies and WISPs are on the verge of being able to meet 100 Mbps uploads if they upgrade to the latest technology.

Several of the big cable companies are currently implementing mid-split technology upgrades that I’ve seen reported as delivering from 100 Mbps to 300 Mbps upload speeds depending upon the local conditions in a cable company network. The big cable companies have all said that they intend to implement DOCSIS 4.0 upgrades that will enable gigabit upload speeds. But cable companies will likely continue to fight to keep the 20 Mbps definition because they will not want to upgrade their networks in smaller and non-competitive markets.

We’re also on the verge of big changes in fixed wireless technology. As WISPs implement the newest radios, and particularly when they integrate 6 GHz spectrum, the networks will be able to deliver much faster speeds. Wireless network technology is interesting in that the ISP can determine the amount of upload and download speed to offer – and as overall speeds get faster, WISPs will be able to deliver 100 Mbps speeds if they elect to do so.

We’re also seeing speed increases from FWA cellular wireless. Verizon recently reported the ability to deliver much faster speeds with the introduction of C-Band spectrum into towers. If they choose, Verizon and the other carriers using C-Band could also meet a 100 Mbps upload speed.

The FCC should consider a faster definition of broadband just because of the changes in technology. There is no reason to set a low definition of 20 Mbps upload that only rewards ISPs that want to stick with older technology. To do so is reminiscent of past FCC decisions that protected DSL long after it was obsolete.

What I find puzzling is that in the NOI, the FCC argued for a faster definition of upload speeds. They mention a study by the Consortium School Network (CoSN) that says that a single student working at home should have a 12 Mbps connection and a 20 Mbps connection is not sufficient to allow multiple students to work from home. The FCC also acknowledges that there are a lot of uses of broadband today that need faster connections. For example, the NOI cites that a 25 Mbps connection is needed for 4K video conferencing, telehealth, and remote learning. The FCC cites that graphics-intensive work can require a 45 Mbps connection. And they acknowledge what millions of gamers will tell you, which is that a 20 Mbps connection is far from adequate. Keeping a 20 Mbps definition of broadband is a regulatory decision that says that these faster uses of broadband are not important or needed.

We also can’t forget that the definition of broadband is not just for households. Cable company networks that offer 20 Mbps upload to businesses are massively inadequate. Businesses have migrated a lot of functions to the cloud, and I could list fifty ways that businesses want to use upload broadband – and many can’t due to slow technologies.

You might think that the definition of broadband is not important – but it says that any ISP connection slower than the definition is not really broadband. If the FCC considers a faster upload speed it will provide an incentive for ISPs to upgrade technology to meet a faster definition – since customers will demand speeds that are considered to be broadband.

Unfortunately, the FCC will likely adopt the 20 Mbps definition, and millions of homes, and particularly businesses, will continue to suffer with inadequate upload speeds for the next five years until the FCC looks again at the definition of broadband. This is a chance for the FCC to implement a policy change that will have real market implications. But the FCC probably doesn’t want to face the ISP lobbying effort to keep an inadequate definition of broadband – even as ISPs are already making upgrades that can meet a faster definition.