Senators Push FCC To Finally Update Our Pathetic Definition Of Broadband

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

To be clear, the US has always had a fairly pathetic definition of “broadband.” Originally defined as anything over 200 kbps in either direction, the definition was updated in 2010 to a pathetic 4 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up. It was updated again in 2015 by the Wheeler FCC to a better, but still arguably pathetic 25 Mbps downstream, 3 Mbps upstream. As we noted then, the broadband industry whined incessantly about having any higher standards, as it would only further highlight the vast impact of monopolization.

Unfortunately for them, last week, a bipartisan coalition of Senators wrote the Biden administration, urging it to adopt a more aggressive broadband definition. How aggressive? 100 Mbps in both directions:

“For years, we have seen billions in taxpayer dollars subsidize network deployments that are outdated as soon as they are complete, lacking in capacity and failing to replace inadequate broadband infrastructure. We need a new approach. ”

Granted if the telecom industry hated 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up, they’ll positively despise a new symmetrical 100 Mbps benchmark. In large part because if we implemented it, FCC data suggests that only around 43 percent of Americans have access to at least one provider (aka a monopoly) capable of doling out those speeds. In rural markets that number falls to around 23 percent. The Senators were quick to note that these tallies are probably notably worse given the FCC’s historically dodgy broadband mapping data:

“Unfortunately, the FCC data continually overestimates broadband connectivity due to outdated mapping and poor data collection methods. We now have multiple definitions across federal agencies for what constitutes an area as served with broadband, resulting in a patchwork without one consistent standard for broadband.”

While the FCC defines broadband at 25/3, the USDA, which helps dole out rural broadband subsidies, defines it a 10 Mbps downstream, 1 Mbps up. As a result, we’ve thrown billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies at companies that do the bare minimum. Or, upgrades they would have deployed anyway. So yes, it makes perfect sense to set the bar a little higher than at ankle height. Especially given that the US continues to rank somewhere around “mediocre” in every major broadband metric that matters (including price).

The problem for the broadband industry is that were America to adopt 100/100 as a standard, 187 million Americans wouldn’t technically have access to broadband. That would only pour fuel on the conversation asking why not. That’s the very last thing a heavily monopolized industry wants. US phone providers have spent years refusing to upgrade or repair aging DSL lines, something this new standard would shine a bright spotlight on. Even the US cable industry, which tends to offer faster downstream speeds, is so embarrassed by its upstream offerings it tries to hide them in company advertising.

I tend to think folks are asking for a symmetrical 100 Mbps hoping to settle on symmetrical 50 Mbps, or 50/25 Mbps, as a compromise. Either way, you can probably expect a tough fight by industry. Wimpy definitions, hand in hand with the FCC’s crappy broadband availability and pricing data, helps obscure the impact of monopolization and limited competition. And changing it would threaten the subsidy gravy train. So expect ample consternation and hand wringing by major ISPs and their allies about how actually having tough standards (for once) is diabolical extremism of the very worst sort.

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Comments on “Senators Push FCC To Finally Update Our Pathetic Definition Of Broadband”

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Anonymous Coward says:

the interesting thing to see here is how many and who are the politicians who try to get these speeds kicked into touch. you can then say you know who to kick out of office at the next elections because they are the ones who have been approving throwing money, hand over fist, whenever possible, to these companies in return for ‘campaign contributions’! these are the politicians who have held the USA broadband industry back, as the companies wanted, instead of holding them to account! now these politicians as well as the companies need to be held to account under threat of being unemployed!!

mcinsand says:

I got lucky!

In December, we got lucky enough to experience gasp competition. Fiber came in from a local ISP, where we were stuck with Spectrum before. I checked my speeds yesterday, and I was getting 200 MBPS both up and down! The internet bills are about the same. As soon as the local ISP included our cluster of neighborhoods in their service area, a good number of houses have switched.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Its the 21st Century, untold billions have been poured into the USF and they can’t even give us 10/1 everywhere.

Lets define it as 200/200 with a short time limit to meet it.
These corporations have been making billions in profits & getting all sorts of handouts… they can afford to upgrade us to at least mediocre speed ratings.
If not the free market will save us… oh wait you let them legislate that away. Perhaps its time to let someone else have a turn, they would be really hard pressed to be worse than what we have now.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Perhaps its time to let someone else have a turn"

The thing that "saved" a lot of other countries was effective regulation combined with an enforced competitive market that removed the defacto monopoly previously held by state telecoms corporations at a time when infrastructure expansion was needed to take advantage of emerging technologies.

Hopefully, you mean something like that rather than "let’s hand everything over to another company without further direct action".

" they would be really hard pressed to be worse than what we have now"

If you’re not regulating and fostering actual competition, you might be disappointed.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I personally like the various muni options I’ve seen mentioned.
Where the city builds out the fibre & then access is a very competitive market with a reasonable overhead to pay for the system in the first place.
Changing providers takes minutes & they have to work to keep customers.

One would think that a smart person might start a company that would do the fiber buildout for cities.
No fuss, no muss, just sign here & here are the rules that have to go so the old companies can;t get in the way.
Welcome to 1 touch make ready and your new future where you can have actual gig speed for $8 a month (we’re upfront, there is an overhead fee for the network of $14 a month that actually pays for the network, maintiance, improvements) or these other 3 isp’s are in a war for clients you coudl get $5 a month with the overhead fee

With all of the billions from USF even government contractors could have wired a majority of the country by now..

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"Where the city builds out the fibre & then access is a very competitive market"

Yes, that’s why multiple places have passed laws specifically outlawing such schemes.

"One would think that a smart person might start a company that would do the fiber buildout for cities."

They did, then they were prevented from accessing the public equipment required to get everything installed correctly and the incumbent ISPs fought tooth and nail to get them shut down – and if Google can’t make it work when the end result would have been a captive market of ad targets, I’m not sure how you expect anyone else to succeed under current market conditions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Its the 21st Century, untold billions have been poured into the USF and they can’t even give us 10/1 everywhere.

The dream of the ’90s is alive in Ottawa, Canada: I finally got T1-equivalent speed in 2017, having been stuck with sub-Mbps DSL upload speeds till then. (10 Mbps upload is the most offered via DSL, so actually quite a bit better than T1.)

Our regulator sucks almost as bad as America’s. I’m looking at a fiber-optic jack as I type this, and the incumbent telco will sell me service at about $80 a month. But I refuse to deal with them, and our regulator lets them set a wholesale rate of something like $130/month (plus traffic-related amounts) for third-party companies—who of course don’t bother offering it, at twice the price. Cable kind of sucks; third-parties don’t offer static IPs or decent IPv6, because the incumbent cablecos manage addressing on their cable systems.

(Speaking of regulatory capture and subsidies, Bell Canada managed to grab taxpayer funds to get fiber to some million-dollar cottages in the middle of nowhere, one of which just happens to be owned by its former CEO.)

There’s really no reason, though, why we shouldn’t demand 100 Mbit/s symmetrical (with forced third-party wholesaling). VDSL2 can do it, and has been around long enough that those modems are $4 at thrift stores. The telco does need to deploy equipment within a few hundred meters of the customers—or, you know, upload to modern fiber. With cable (DOCSIS3), such speeds been possible for a long time; DOCSIS4 can do 6 Gbit/s upload (shared, but come on, that’s enough for at least 60 people at 100 Mbit/s).

Melvin Chudwaters says:

Real broadband is:

  • Symmetrical, thus only the smaller of the download and upload speeds can be used
  • 10gigabit
  • Glass to the side of the house
  • Has SFP/SFP+ modules available for no extra monthly cost

Anything less is watered down. But since even in my opinion this is a slightly aspirational standard, let’s talk about substandard broadband:

  • Symmetrical, thus only the smaller of the download and upload speeds can be used
  • Gigabit
  • Glass to the side of the house
  • Has SFP modules available for no extra monthly cost

The only exceptions that should be made are those for Starlink, because even non-asshole companies can’t be expected to light up the Alaskan wilderness with fiber. And that exception should only apply to buildings that are more than 1 mile away from the nearest customer.

R.H. (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In order to get either of your standards, we’d seriously need local governments to own and operate the last mile with ISP’s simply providing service over municipally-owned fiber. Even then, there are gravel and dirt roads where burying conduits wouldn’t be easy and I’m not sure about hanging long-distance fiber from poles. Imagine the infrastructure that would have to be added for houses that don’t even have municipal water and sewer service (wells and septic systems are pretty common in my area) in order to pull this off.

For example, I live in an apartment serviced by Charter Spectrum (and, of course, we have municipal water and sewer service.) However, if I look over the top of my computer screen at the single-family homes a few hundred feet from me none of them have access to broadband internet, municipal water, or municipal sewage systems. (I know this because several of them have been up for sale in the decade that I’ve lived here and their listings mention these things.) I’m not even that far outside of a city with two cities each about 3 miles to the east and west of my location.

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Anonymous Coward says:

The problem for the broadband industry is that were America to adopt 100/100 as a standard, 187 million Americans wouldn’t technically have access to broadband.

Can’t wait to see the headlines on that one.

"Biden to strip broadband access from Americans."

"New regulations will leave 187 million Americans without access to broadband Internet access"

sumgai (profile) says:

Well, I think we’ve all been going down just one path to create a solution, so I’d like to throw this out for your consideration:

The name of the game is profit, yes? That is the ONLY thing that gets a company’s attention, like it or not. So instead of mandating the connection speed, mandate the cost per Kb/Mb/Gb delivered. And you get results by tying that price per bit delivered to what the same speed would cost in, say, South Korea. If the company wants more money, then they’d better deliver more speed, simple as that.

Obviously this will require on-site metering, no provider has proven themselves trustworthy to report correct numbers, but just how good will such a meter have to be, and what steps do we take to prevent tampering… lots of details to work out here.

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