Government Could Change Broadband Definition


The Federal Communications Commission is said to be mulling over a change in the threshold for an Internet service to be considered broadband, with 10Mbps the most likely new threshold.

At the moment the FCC defines “broadband” (which it also refers to as “high-speed Internet”) as 4Mbps with a 1Mbps upload. It’s planning a public consultation over the redefinition.

As the FCC is still deciding on the precise options to put forward for debate, it’s not made the numbers public. However, an “agency official” told the Washington Post that 10Mbps is planned as the main suggestion, with the public possibly also asked about a 25Mbps threshold. There’ll also be a change in the upload threshold, with 2.9Mbps the current plan, though the figure will depend on the download theshold.

The Post also notes the FCC may ask the public for reaction to the idea of having varying thresholds depending on factors such as location (rural vs urban) or the time of day.

A change to the definitions wouldn’t necessarily have a direct effect on individual consumers. The definition is only for the FCC’s own authority, so it’s highly unlikely that, forĀ  example, somebody subscribing to a “broadband” service could legally demand a minimum speed of 10Mbps and cite false advertising if they didn’t get it.

Instead the change would affect official statistics and the FCC’s own operations. For example, a change would likely mean a dramatic increase in the proportion of Americans officially defined as not having access to high-speed Internet.

That in turn would give the FCC more powers to force Internet providers to upgrade networks, particularly in rural areas. At the moment the US government is working to a target of virtually everyone in the country having access to a 4Mbps service by 2020, a target which could theoretically be revised if the FCC definition changes.

In the image above, the top map shows areas of the US which already have services of at least 3 to 6Mbps, meaning most meet current thrsholds. The bottom map shows areas which meet the proposed threshold of 10 Mbps.

Any change in the definition could prompt yet more disputes in the broadband industry. Internet providers may feel the FCC is using semantics to put them under increased regulatory pressure. The FCC meanwhile believes the existing thresholds simply aren’t adequate now that so many popular Internet services such as streaming video rely on fast speeds.

And that in turn reawakens the debate about whether firms such as Netflix which make their business from fast data speeds should contribute more towards the infrastructure that provides broadband access, or if that would violate the ideal of net neutrality.

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