This small change in the definition of broadband could have a big impact


broadband concept with blue lights

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When I started using the internet in the 1970s, my business used a 1.544 megabits per second (Mbps) T1 connection. At home, I was lucky to have a 1,200 baud connection that delivered 1.2 kilobits per second (Kbps). 

We’ve gotten much faster since then. Since January 2015, however, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has defined “broadband” as 25Mbps for downloads and 3Mbps for uploads. Now, at last, the FCC has redefined broadband as a more robust 100Mbps for downloads and 20Mbps for uploads.

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Everyone knows that the market doesn’t consider “high-speed internet” as 25/3. I haven’t had an internet connection with such low speeds in 20 years. You can’t even buy internet that slow in my hometown of Asheville, NC.

We’re lucky, though. Just because I and others in my area have access to high-speed fiber and cable internet doesn’t mean people in rural areas do.

As of December 2022, broadband service (excluding satellite) has not been physically deployed to approximately 24 million Americans, including almost 28% of Americans in rural areas, and more than 23% of people living on Tribal land. 

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Mobile 5G coverage at minimum speeds of 25/3 isn’t available to about 9% of Americans, to almost 36% of Americans in rural areas, and to more than 20% of people living on Tribal lands. Altogether, 45 million Americans lack access to 100/20 Mbps fixed service and 25/3 Mbps mobile 5G service.

This gap in speed shows that the US’ definition of broadband matters. The FCC broadband standard isn’t just a recognition that the internet is much faster today. The standard is also a goal to extend the blessing of broadband to all Americans. COVID-19 rubbed our noses in the simple fact that we all need broadband access for our education and work — and not just to watch Netflix in HD.

So, why did it take so long to redefine broadband? The answer is politics. The FCC’s decision underscores a persistent partisan divide over internet speed standards, with Democrats advocating for faster standards and Republicans cautioning against such increases.

As FCC chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel, said: “In the United States, we dream big and do audacious things. We connected the coasts with railways. We crisscrossed this country with interstate highways. We did these things because they strengthened our communities, our economy, and our national security. Today, we are engaged in the same kind of history-making because we are building high-speed broadband for everyone, everywhere in this country.”

Rosenworcel dreams of a day when everyone has access to 1Gbps/500Mbps speeds.  

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But FCC Republican member Nathan Simington disagrees: “I’m unable to support the report [because] it sets an unnecessary long-term speed target of 1000/500 Mbps. Certainly, for the same price, I would take gigabit service over 100/20 Mbps service, but I wouldn’t get much-added utility out of it.”

He added that SpaceX’s Starlink should be considered since it’s “completely changed the game … especially in rural areas.” That analysis is correct, but Starlink also costs $120 a month for unlimited data, with equipment fees starting at $599. Simington insists, though, that Starlink is the answer if: “we give Starlink and its forthcoming competitors access to more spectrum and permission for more launches, and if we allow them to compete for Universal Service Fund subsidies on equal footing with other providers.”

I like Starlink, but I’ve also found it’s unreliable, especially for its upload speeds. I’m far from alone. The Reddit/Starlink forum is full of such reports. Starlink’s high prices also don’t make it ideal for rural and Tribal lands where people are often poorer than those in urban and suburban areas.

Be that as it may, this new benchmark is more than symbolic. It’s a crucial factor that could influence FCC regulations indirectly. According to US law, the FCC must ensure the swift and equitable deployment of “advanced telecommunications capability” to all Americans.

With a higher standard speed, the FCC is better positioned to argue that broadband providers must accelerate their efforts toward universal coverage, potentially spurring regulatory actions to foster competition and deployment.

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