from the keeping-the-bar-at-ankle-height dept
For decades, the FCC has maintained an arguably pathetic definition of “broadband,” allowing the telecom industry to under-deliver substandard access. And despite some new rhetoric from the agency under Biden, that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.
Broadband was originally defined as any 200 kbps connection. In 2010, that pathetic definition was changed to a slightly less pathetic definition: 4 Mbps downstream, 1 Mbps upstream. In 2015, it was changed again to a slightly more reasonable but still pathetic 25 Mbps downstream, 3 Mbps upstream, where it resides today.
For eight years straight everybody from consumer groups to the GAO told the FCC that the sluggish 25/3 definition didn’t reflect modern standards, and let the telecom industry get away with providing substandard service. The Trump FCC’s response: to propose lowering the definition even further.
Recently the Biden FCC proposed finally updating the definition of broadband to something more modern. A recent Notice of Inquiry (NOI) issued by the agency indicates they’re looking at 100 Mbps downstream, and 20 Mbps upstream as the new standard:
“we seek comment on the appropriate standards for evaluating the physical deployment of fixed and mobile broadband service, including proposing to increase our benchmark for fixed broadband download speed to 100 megabits per second (Mbps) and the upload speed to 20 Mbps.”
They’re just pushing the idea and seeking public comment. An actual update of the definition of broadband is still some distance away.
Originally, Senators had prodded the FCC to impose a cleaner, symmetrical 100 Mbps (upstream and downstream) standard definition of broadband. But after lobbying from cable and wireless companies that can’t consistently deliver 100 Mbps upstream, the definition was weakened to help companies pretend their services are more cutting edge than they actually are.
The FCC’s NOI asks if the agency should maybe consider imposing a speed standard of 1 Gbps downstream, 500 Mbps upstream, but industry watchers like Doug Dawson correctly note that it’s hard to take the agency seriously on that front:
“Setting a future theoretical speed goal is a feel-good exercise to make it sound like FCC policy will somehow influence the forward march of technology upgrades. This is exactly the sort of thing that talking-head policy folks do when they create 5-year and 10-year broadband plans.”
Big ISPs have of course fought any effort to improve U.S. broadband speed metrics every step of the way. Keeping the definition of broadband set at ankle height helps obfuscate the industry’s ongoing failure to deliver next-generation broadband in a timely basis despite billions in subsidies, tax breaks, and regulatory favors that were all supposed to help deliver uniform broadband access.
It works in concert with the FCC’s historically shitty broadband maps to obfuscate market failure, limited competition, and the perils of concentrated monopoly power. Better data and higher standards would highlight widespread market failure prompting calls to hold concentrated telecom power accountable, and we certainly wouldn’t want that.
When it comes to telecom policy, the GOP operates in absolute synchronized lockstep with widely disliked companies like AT&T and Comcast. The lion’s share of Democrats, in contrast, like to put on a good show that they care about the consumers in this equation, but the vast majority of proposals they push still wind up being long overdue and largely decorative.