Redefining "Broadband" is Only One of Several Big Challenges Service Providers Now Face

Among other potential changes in U.S. policy pertaining to high speed access is the question of what numerical value should be set to define what “broadband” actually is.

At the moment, the Federal Communications Commission uses a functional definition of a minimum of 4 Mbps in the downstream direction, and 1 Mbps upstream.

The definition matters because universal service support and other data collection efforts hinge on use of the definition.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says 25 Mbps is “table stakes,” while universal service should be based on a definition of at least 10 Mbps for Universal Service Fund activities. In other words, the FCC chairman thinks classic “Ethernet” speeds of 10 Mbps should now be the minimum any Internet service provider must provide, in a rural area, to qualify for universal service support.

That has clear financial implications for at least some rural ISPs, and also creates a sort of “speed umbrella” for all competitors in rural areas. In other words, in many markets, ISPs will have to contend with a speed floor at 10 Mbps, or whatever speed the FCC might mandate as the minimum for getting universal service funds.

To be sure, floors are not ceilings. Some service providers might already be selling services at speeds of 25 Mbps or much higher.

The new definition might, or might not affect mobile service providers as well. In some cases, mobile “broadband” might suddenly become less widespread, if the definitions used for fixed and mobile networks are the same.

Even Long Term Evolution networks might not meet a 25 Mbps standard immediately. On the ohter hand, some providers, such as T-Mobile US, might welcome a chance to upstage its major competitors, as T-Mobile US already is operating LTE networks operating as fast as 100 Mbps.

The other important non-financial angle is that resetting minimum definitions from 4 Mbps up to 10 Mbps or 25 Mbps will likely have implications for the integrity of record keeping, creating a statistical anomaly in the year the new and different definition is used.

It is possible that the percentage of U.S. “broadband users” will decrease when the change is made.

Over the long term, such periodic revisions will make sense for government regulators. When large numbers of U.S. consumers are able to buy service ranging from 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps, keeping a 4-Mbps definition is silly.

On the other hand, some service providers--satellite and fixed wireless come to mind--will be quite challenged as overall speeds climb. For satellite providers, network architecture is the limit. For fixed wireless providers, available spectrum is the limitation.

In a market where 1-Gbps or 300 Mbps access is common, 15 Mbps services will seem like dial-up access.
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