FCC Adopts New 25-Mbps Definition for High Speed Access

The Federal Communications Commission has upped the definition of “broadband Internet access” to a minimum of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. In one sense, the revision makes sense: high speed access speeds are climbing about as fast as Moore’s Law would suggest.

The definitional change will be reflected in FCC and other policies to spur faster broadband deployment in rural areas. The last revision was made in 2010, when the FCC redefined broadband as 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream.

In other words, in five years, the FCC has boosted the definition of broadband by an order of magnitude. That, the agency says, reflects “advances in technology, market offerings by broadband providers and consumer demand.”

And yet the FCC also maintains that broadband deployment in the United States is failing to
keep pace with today’s advanced, high-quality voice, data, graphics and video offerings.”

Using the updated service benchmark, the FCC argues that 55 million Americans, representing 17 percent of the population, lack access to advanced broadband.

Some might say this is a “moving of the goalposts” scenario, however reasonable the change of definition might be. Oddly, 10 Mbps Ethernet access now does not qualify as “broadband,” either, which sort of complicates analysis.

Laudable though boosting the minimum targets and definitions, some might say a necessary consequence is that the government might keep claiming no progress is being made, because it keeps redefining the definitions to create the very “gap” the government then decries.

That is true even if one agrees that 25 Mbps is not a bad lower limit, in some respects, as speeds keep increasing. The new definitions will have to scale as the top bandwidths start to routinely be offered at 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps, some might argue.

The issue, though, is that there no longer is any fixed definition of speed, only relative definitions. Some might say it is nonsense to effectively redefine 10 Mbps Ethernet as narrowband.

The revisions also mean a longitudinal comparison of progress is complicated, since the definitions keep changing.

Also, using the new definition, a Comcast that had acquired Time Warner Cable would have perhaps 50 percent market share of high speed access connections in the United States, a number so high it would trigger antitrust concerns.

In 2012, for example, the FCC reported that 19 million U.S. residents, about six percent of the population, lacked broadband access.

The latest report, using the new definition, suggests that 55 million U.S. residents, or 17 percent of the population, lack broadband access.

But the 2012 report also indicated that 27  percent of U.S. residents already had access to networks providing 100 Mbps service.

In fact, the 2012 report indicated that 89 percent of U.S. residents could buy service at 10 Mbps. Some 64 percent of U.S. residents could buy service at 25 Mbps and 55 percent already could buy service at 50 Mbps.

The new definition suggests high speed access has gone backwards. It clearly has not, though we will not have the FCC’s own analysis of how much faster speeds have gotten, until the full report is released.
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