The FCC may consider a stricter definition of broadband in the Netflix age


(Pew Internet & American Life Project)

What is high-speed Internet? Believe it or not, there is a technical definition. Currently, it's set at 4 megabits per second. Anything less, and in the government's view, you're not actually getting broadband-level speeds.

For years, that definition of broadband worked reasonably well. But these days, 4 Mbps may not get you very much anymore. The rise of streaming music and video means that all the things we do online now require a lot more bandwidth compared to even five years ago. So the Federal Communications Commission is beginning to consider whether to raise the definition of broadband — a change that might have big implications for the way we regulate Internet providers.

The FCC soon intends to solicit public comments on whether broadband should be redefined as 10 Mbps and up, or even as high as 25 Mbps and up, according to an agency official who asked not to be named because the draft request was not yet public. The new threshold would likely increase the number of people in the United States that statistically lack broadband, which in 2012 amounted to 6 percent of the population.

Depending on the responses, the FCC may decide that broadband must be defined as being at least 10 Mbps, or even 25 Mbps. That's because many of today's Internet services use a lot of data -- and 4 Mbps is hardly enough to meet those needs. An HD-quality Netflix stream, for instance, requires at least a 5 Mbps connection. And in today's typical home, one family member may be streaming a movie while others are making a high-quality Skype call or downloading files from Dropbox, which only adds to the bandwidth requirements.

The notice of inquiry will be circulated internally at the commission Friday, said the official, in preparation for a future public release. In addition to asking whether the old broadband definition is still adequate for today's typical usage patterns, it'll ask the public whether the FCC should adopt a tiered set of definitions to account for varying speeds in different regions or during different times of day.

If the FCC does put a more stringent definition on what is considered broadband, it could indirectly affect other ongoing policy debates. The FCC has the authority to regulate Internet providers if it believes that the rollout of Internet infrastructure is being impeded. Under a higher standard for broadband, the commission could argue that an ISP isn't working fast enough to upgrade its networks, and intervene.

Update: An FCC official confirmed that the inquiry also covers upload speeds in addition to download speeds. In the 10 Mbps scenario, which the commission defines as a "high-use" case involving HD streaming, HD calling and downloads from the cloud, the commission posits a minimum upload speed of 2.9 Mbps — up from the current standard of 1 Mbps.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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