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Why You Should Care That The FCC Is Trying To Redefine Broadband

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In the wake of the ongoing net neutrality argument, another equally important squabble between regulators and telecoms companies has been overlooked. The FCC is trying to redefine 'broadband' as "internet which is actually fast enough to use", and telecoms companies don't like that one little bit.

According to current FCC policy, 'broadband' means 4Mbps down/1Mbps up. That's been the definition since 2010, when it was upgraded from a (hilariously slow) 200Kbps. However, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently outlined a plan to update that definition, to 25Mbps down/3 up. It's a position supported by a number of companies, including Netflix; but unsurprisingly, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) is dead against the plan.


As arbitrary as the 25/3 numbers sound, they're not picked totally out of thin air: they're based on a clause in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which states that broadband must "enable users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications using any technology".

Based on that criteria, broadband should be fairly easy to define. Netflix publishes a handy little chart of how fast your internet has to be in order to stream video from its servers. To get any kind of buffer-free service, they recommend a 1.5Mbps connection, with 5Mbps recommended for HD, and 25 for 4K content.


Going by those numbers, saying that 25Mbps is the minimum standard for broadband seems a little excessive. 4K content is a rare beast on the internet, and the necessary equipment for watching it — a 4K TV — is rarer still (although, give it five years and we'll see how things change).

But an alternative argument for a 25Mbps standard, put forward by policy group Public Knowledge, is that a single internet connection is commonly shared between several individuals. If, say, three members of a five-person household are streaming Netflix at the same time, you'd need a minimum of 15Mbps in order for everything to work seamlessly — and that's assuming that the Wi-Fi network isn't causing any slowdown.

In a FCC filing on Thursday, the NCTA claimed that no-one needs internet that fast, saying that 'hypotheticals' like people sharing one internet connection "dramatically exaggerate the amount of bandwidth needed by the typical broadband user", and that "a relatively small percentage of consumers who have access to speeds of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps actually choose to purchase service at those speeds". Of course, that has nothing at all to do with the non-existent competition and subsequent price gouging on high-speed plans, compared to low speed internet. Nothing at all.


Why does all this matter? Well, you see, the FCC is required to "encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability [read: broadband] to all Americans". So if it doesn't think that enough households have broadband, it can use a selection of tools to 'encourage' competition — tools that scare companies like Comcast or TWC.


So it's clear why the telecoms companies want to keep the definition of broadband down: a lower threshold for broadband keeps regulators off their backs, and allows them to perpetutate the (very valuable) oligopoly that exists in the high-end broadband market.

And, in turn, the position of companies like Netflix and Google, who are advocating for faster broadband speeds, should be equally clear. Faster internet means a better experience for consumers, which means more paying customers for Netflix, and more eyeballs on videos for YouTube.


From an individual's perspective, there aren't really any downsides to the bar for 'broadband' being moved higher. If the FCC gets its wish, and overnight 25/3 becomes the minimum standard for broadband, the only negative effects will be for telecoms companies that sell internet packages. They'll be shamed for not offering broadband to wide swathes of America; but more importantly, an 'entry level' broadband package will be something you might want to own, rather than a low-price face-saving tool designed to make telcos look good. [FCC via Ars Technica]