FCC Attempts to Weaken Broadband Standard

Rather than hold providers accountable, the Commission wants to lower speed requirements and loosen definition of competition. You may have missed this item with the uproar around the FCC's recent decision to repeal Net neutrality rules, but the agency is prepared to harm consumers further by changing the definition of what constitutes “broadband service” for compliance purposes.

While Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 specifies that broadband service providers must enhance their service offerings in underserved communities to meet compliance requirements, the FCC has proposed to dismiss this requirement by instead changing the definition of what constitutes “broadband service. In so doing, it would effectively be lowering acceptable upload and download speeds for data BY MORE THAN 50%. There's been rumblings about the FCC's intent for a while, with a request for comments issued last summer. But time is now of the essence, as the FCC plans an action item decision on Feb. 2.

As I asked in the October 2017 post, "Changing Broadband Definitions," when teachers have trouble getting students to pass a test, should they lower the standards for passing or modify the teaching so that students understand, if not master, the material?  The same question applies here. If you’re in favor of the “dumbing down the test” approach, read no further.  If you feel otherwise, plod on.

Under Section 706, the FCC is required to measure, on a consistent basis, whether telecom carriers are deploying broadband to all Americans uniformly and "in a reasonable and timely fashion." Through its regular research, if the Commission determines that the industry is failing in its buildout of “advanced telecommunications capability” it must legally "take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment" and by "promoting competition in the telecommunications market."  (As for that advanced telecommunications capability, the FCC defines that as “without regard to any transmission media or technology, as high-speed, switched, broadband telecommunications capability that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications using any technology.")

Recognizing that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, FCC  Chair Ajit Pai is suggesting that rather than hold the largest providers accountable, an easier resolution would be  to lower the definition of broadband from 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up to 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, and then redefine “competition” so that the presence of one additional provider, located within a half-mile radius of the potential customer, constitutes competition.  Really?  The redefinition of these key terms is a back door way of enabling existing rules to fit a process that's clearly not achieving its defined goals. It fails to address the underlying problem, which is that the primary providers have little incentive to build out services that those of us who live and work in metropolitan areas take for granted in places where the market alone will never be able to sustain the cost to deploy and maintain these networks.

But back to the speed issue.  If the FCC chair and his Republican cohorts are successful in lowering the defined speed of advanced communications capability, the change would put the U.S. in a unique position. According to, statistics provided by, the U.S. would be 50th in the world, right between the Isle of Man and the Bahamas, in terms of mean download speed.Even at the current 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up defined rate, the U.S. comes in at 15, between Hungary and Lithuania.  For the record, Singapore is first, with a mean download speed of 55.13 Mbps. Further, although it’s not on this list, the Canadian legal standard is 50 Mbps down/10 Mbps up, a far cry from the current American standard.

One other important note. The speeds quoted reflect delivery goals. But speed drops based on demand, so if four people at a residence are online at the same time, the speed for all drops as they struggle to share the finite amount of upload and download capacity.  Given that a single Netflix stream consumes between 3.5 and 5 Mbps by itself, and given that with every day we each have more connected devices sharing the bandwidth, this proposed weakening of the delivery standard will hurt multi-device households most acutely.

The proposed FCC standard equates fixed-line broadband with wireless broadband. Wireless data, whether over Wi-Fi or cellular networks, is NOT equivalent to fixed-line broadband.  First of all, with current LTE implementations, mobile data is subject to latency issues simply as a function of the transmission process.  Latency is a particular problem with cellular broadband, although when 5G is deployed this problem is likely to be gracefully addressed. Additionally, and probably more critically, the cost to use cellular data is significantly higher than the cost to use fixed-line broadband. CCG Consulting estimates the cost for a household using 100 gigabytes of cellular data in a month at close to $1,000, where the cost of functionally faster fixed-line broadband is probably one-tenth of that amount.  Given that average households use between 150 and 200 GB of data per month, according to several ISPs, the cost differential alone is nothing short of staggering. Additionally, wireless providers often throttle data when a certain usage limit is reached or when network traffic is heavy, according to Tom Brannen, President of Wassaw Consulting in Atlanta. Finally, because the demand for higher network speeds will only increase as more devices and people connect, the plan to lower the threshold definition is nothing if not short sighted.

Earlier this week, on Jan. 8, President Donald Trump signed two executive orders creating additional funding mechanisms to support rural broadband deployment.  While claiming that such action will enable American farmers to “compete on a level playing field,” he failed to mention (or his speechwriters failed to include this information) that at the same time, his administration is working to lower the standard delivery speeds, thus un-leveling the playing field once again.

How can American students and enterprises succeed if, in the name of increased deployment, we lower the quality of what’s being deployed?  I guess it’s time for another comment to the FCC and a call to my Congressman.


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