When I first connected to the Internet, I used a 2400 bps analog modem. Today I connect via ultra-broadband at a speed that's literally a million times faster. But apparently the Federal Communications Commission thinks modern broadband Internet connectivity is too much of a good thing and plans to lower the definition of high-speed broadband.
Currently, the FCC defines "high speed" as 25 Mbp/s downstream and 3 Mbp/s upstream but a plan that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai disclosed this week would drop the US standard to 10 Mbp/s down / 1 Mbp/s up. That's not quite back to the dawn of the Internet, but it's still a pretty big decline. This is the definition the government uses for things like defining the digital divide, for example, and for determining what percentage of the population is adequately connected.
Why is the FCC doing this and why does this matter?
It matters because changing the definition of broadband changes which networks get built and who gets government subsidies to build new networks. It means the 19% of Americans who don't have access to fixed-line broadband today will -- when it finally gets built out to them -- potentially have access to lesser broadband. Those who already have antiquated broadband will be stuck with it for years because it will meet the FCC's new minimal criteria.
This consideration is occurring at a time when vendors and their operator customers are pushing the speed envelope, heavily investing in fiber and maximizing their existing copper and coax infrastructures through VDSL and Gfast. But while some people zip online, others in rural and some urban areas have no or limited fixed access to broadband.
Why should you care? After all, you have broadband. You should care because these are your tax dollars and they will be wasted if the FCC goes backward. Subsidies will fund infrastructure that meets the bare minimum to satisfy the definition of broadband. With an even weaker meaning of "high speed," networks are past their best by date from Day One. They will require rebuilding sooner than later -- once again using our tax dollars. Even if you don't give a hoot about the plight of the unconnected and unserved, you should still care about the FCC's definition of broadband and voice your opinion against lowering the broadband standard.
As to the plight of these unconnected and unserved, they are many and varied, especially if we condemn them to lesser levels of broadband and stick them there, never to catch up with the rest of the nation. The simple hard truth is that 10M /1M broadband simply isn't enough -- not now and certainly not going forward.
It doesn't meet the FCC's own definition of broadband as a "platform capable of transmitting high-bandwidth intensive services." Sure, it's enough to surf Facebook but that's about it. This low-level definition translates into "Don't work from home, don't videoconference, don't do backups and don't do Netflix. (Well, you can do a little bit of Netflix, but only if you agree on what to view and don't watch in high-quality mode.) Don't even dream about telemedicine or e-learning, two rapidly growing broadband uses often shuttered to rural and unconnected urban dwellers."
Personally, I use my broadband and I use it well. I expect everyone who gets broadband on my tax dollar to use broadband to the same full extent. I'm certainly not amenable to paying for it twice (or more) in order to get there. To give things a bit of scale, I regularly exceed sustained 25 Mbp/s usage at home, and I'm neither atypical nor a heavy user.
Video streaming and large file downloads are the obvious elephants in the room. As a reminder, all over-the-top providers require at least 25 Mbp/s to stream 4K content. By what reasonable standard should a service defined as broadband not be able to do that?
This brings up the question of how much is enough. When the power company hooks you up, you don't worry whether you can keep your lights on while you run the dishwasher. Likewise, everybody should have enough bandwidth to use multiple devices, worry-free. Today, that gold standard is 1 Gbit/s. That's 40 times the minimum definition of today's 25 Mbp/s broadband.
The steady increase in devices and simultaneous use of the Internet by multiple family members drives broadband usage, generating many households' hunger for ultra-broadband. It is easy to see how one person could consume 25 Mbp/s and a family could use 100 Mbp/s. Extrapolate predicted growth trends and account for the headroom needed over the network's lifetime and it is fairly simple to determine that gigabit service should be the goal. It pays to keep in mind that once you start planning for 100 Mbp/s service, you might as well go straight to 1 Gbit/s since the effort and the network are almost the same.
For the skeptics, yes, it is debatable if true 1 Gbit/s speeds are necessary today but 25 Mbp/s broadband service is very much needed right now. The definition should not be lowered. Why the FCC's sudden interest in lowering standards? Since when did the US accept being second rate, worse than some third world countries? Is 'put America first' an empty slogan? In whose interest is it to downgrade the definition of broadband? It's not in America's best interest. Who is the FCC working for? Whatever the answers, the FCC fails the nation if it downgrades the definition of broadband.
— Jared Brown is the Principal Consultant at Fiberrun which specializes in fiber network design and consulting. Connect with him on LinkedIn.