The Current Definition of ‘Broadband’ Is Too Slow and Ajit Pai Refuses to Change it

Ajit Pai is once again trying to keep the definition of broadband set at ankle height.
Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Under the Telecom Act of 1996, the FCC is required to routinely assess whether broadband is "being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion," and take action if it isn’t. Part of that effort involves periodically updating the standard definition of “broadband” to ensure it meets technological advancements and consumer expectations. For example, in early 2015 the FCC voted to upgrade the standard definition of broadband from a paltry 4 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up—to a more respectable 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up. At the time, giant ISP executives, lobbyists, and numerous, ISP-loyal Senators whined incessantly about the changes. Commissioner Ajit Pai (who hadn’t yet been promoted to agency head) was quick to vote against the effort, joining alongside cable lobbying organizations who lamented the changes as “unrealistic and arbitrary.” Why were the nation’s broadband monopolies so upset? Because the faster standard not only highlighted the painful lack of competition at faster speeds, but the fact that many telcos had neglected network upgrades at any real scale. As a result, millions of Americans only have access to sluggish, over-priced DSL lines that can’t even technically be called broadband. With the FCC preparing its latest report of the state of broadband in the States, the focus has shifted once again to whether the current definition of broadband is currently fast enough. Especially on the upstream side of the aisle, where 3 Mbps is starting to look notably last-generation in the face of symmetrical, gigabit connections. And once again, Ajit Pai is hoping to keep the broadband definition bar set at ankle height.


In a Notice of Inquiry published last week, Pai’s FCC proposed keeping the current 25/3 definition intact, something that riled his fellow Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "This inquiry fundamentally errs by proposing to keep our national broadband standard at 25Mbps," Rosenworcel said of the decision. "It is time to be bold and move the national broadband standard from 25 Megabits to 100 Megabits per second,” Rosenworcel stated. “When you factor in price, at this speed the United States is not even close to leading the world. That is not where we should be and if in the future we want to change this we need both a more powerful goal and a plan to reach it. Our failure to commit to that course here is disappointing. I regretfully dissent." Again, adequately defining broadband is important because it determines whether the nation’s broadband providers are deploying "advanced telecommunications capability” to American consumers. Given the rise in 4K streaming, cloud storage, and next-gen services, it’s easy to see how the 3 Mbps upstream definition is starting to look a bit antiquated. This isn’t the first time Pai’s preference for flimsier broadband standards has been an issue at the agency. In addition to voting against the effort to raise the bar from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps back in 2015, the FCC head was forced to retreat from a plan last year that would have effectively lowered the bar to 10 Mbps—by including slower, capped, throttled and caveat-laden wireless connections as part of the overall definition of genuine broadband. Rosenworcel had choice words for Pai then as well, calling Pai’s effort “crazy” and counterproductive.

Again, the motivation for the industry’s opposition to faster standards should be obvious. If data indicates that next-gen broadband isn’t being deployed quickly enough, somebody might just get the wild idea to actually do something about it. And if you’re a monopoly ISP basking in the profitable glow of a broken, uncompetitive market, you certainly wouldn’t want that.