When it comes to defining broadband, the United States has always kept the bar set somewhere around ankle height. But as broadband becomes increasingly essential and new technologies emerge, there’s a growing push to finally aim a little higher.
Back in 1996, US broadband was defined as anything faster than 200 kbps in either direction. In 2010, that definition was updated to 4 Mbps downstream, 1 Mbps upstream. In 2015 it was updated again to a still fairly pathetic 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.
Last week, a bipartisan group of Senators wrote a letter to the Biden administration, urging it to finally update the definition of broadband to something more aggressive. The Senators argued that if the United States is going to continue subsidizing the broadband industry for deployments, those deployments should be able to withstand the test of time.
“For years, we have seen billions in taxpayer dollars subsidize network deployments that are outdated as soon as they are complete, lacking in capacity and failing to replace inadequate broadband infrastructure,” Senator Michael Bennet wrote. “We need a new approach.”
The Senators recommended that the Biden FCC aggressively bump the definition of broadband to 100 Mbps in both directions, “allowing for limited variation when dictated by geography, topography, or unreasonable cost.”
According to current FCC data, only around 43 percent of Americans have access to at least one 100/100 Mbps internet connection. In rural markets that number falls to around 23 percent. In short, were the government to update its definition to 100 Mbps in both directions, roughly 187 million Americans wouldn’t technically have access to “broadband.”
And the Senators were quick to note that these estimates might be optimistic given the government’s historically unreliable broadband maps.
“Unfortunately, the FCC data continually overestimates broadband connectivity due to outdated mapping and poor data collection methods,” the Senators wrote. “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 deems 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up as broadband, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which helps dole out subsidies for rural upgrades, defines broadband as just 10/1 Mbps. Many US telcos, which have for years lagged on upgrading or repairing aging DSL lines, have struggled to meet either definition in some markets.
Christopher Mitchell is director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that advocates for local solutions for sustainable development. He told Motherboard that ISPs have a long history of opposing every FCC effort to boost broadband’s baseline definition.
“The big broadband providers have fought against more realistic broadband definitions because a higher threshold will open more areas to federal and state subsidies that could bring a new competitor to town,” Mitchell said.
The FCC is mandated by Congress to provide a report once a year determining whether broadband is being deployed on a “reasonable and timely basis.” If not, the agency is supposed to do something about it.
But the US government hasn’t historically done a good job verifying ISP availability data. Flawed FCC methodology has contributed to the problem by declaring an area “served” with broadband if an ISP claims it can serve just one home in a census block.
The end result: a government that views the country’s broadband problems through rose-colored glasses, reducing any incentive to actually fix monopolization.
“The monopolies want to keep extracting community wealth with the smallest investments they can get away with,” Mitchell said. “A higher broadband definition pushes them to invest in better networks and they would prefer to delay those expenditures.”
ISPs are likely to once again lobby against any effort to boost the definition of broadband. US telcos in many areas have all but given up on upgrading or even repairing aging DSL lines. Even US cable providers, which historically have delivered faster speeds, tend to offer sluggish upstream speeds they frequently try to hide in company advertising.
Dana Floberg, a broadband expert at consumer group Free Press, told Motherboard that while the group welcomes updating our sluggish broadband definitions, slow speeds are only part of the problem. Due to limited competition, Americans also pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for broadband, something a faster definition doesn’t really address.
“Right now, fiber-to-the-home is available in Census Blocks that contain 50.6 million households, but as of 2018 FCC subscription data, only 14.6 million residential households subscribed,” Floberg said. “So the problem here is not just getting fast networks built out, but making sure that people can afford to subscribe to those networks.”
To do this, Floberg said it was essential for the Biden FCC to restore the agency’s consumer protection authority over broadband providers, dismantled during the Trump administration’s attack on net neutrality. That isn’t likely to occur until the Biden administration appoints a third FCC Commissioner and permanent replacement for former agency boss Ajit Pai.
“With restored Title II authority, the FCC would have the power to intervene in the broadband market, promote competition and lower prices, and protect against ISP abuses without needing to routinely ‘prove’ that broadband is not being deployed quickly enough,” Floberg said. “Because regardless of the speed of deployment, we know this market is failing to achieve universal broadband adoption, and failing to serve low-income families and communities of color in particular.”