Right now, Washington's minimum definition of "broadband" is 4 megabits per second. At that rate, if you tried streaming a Netflix movie at standard quality it'd use up 75 percent of your available bandwidth, leaving you little capacity to do much else.
So the FCC is thinking about raising the threshold for what's considered broadband. In a formal notice Tuesday, the FCC asked the public to weigh in on whether it should raise the standard to 10 Mbps — which is roughly the current national average — or perhaps even higher, to 15 or 25 Mbps. Crucially, however, the agency is also considering whether to include things like data caps — which limit how much Internet consumers can use in a month — and network lag — or delays in getting information to you — as part of that analysis.
Updating the standard would give the FCC greater leeway to regulate Internet providers. The agency's congressional charter, the Communications Act, allows the FCC to encourage the deployment of broadband (and to knock down obstacles that get in the way).
"Under section 706," according to the notice, "if the Commission finds that broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion, then the Commission must 'take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.' The Commission has previously identified numerous barriers to infrastructure investment."
The FCC isn't mandating anything yet. It's simply calling for feedback on its idea to update the definition of broadband. To get the conversation started, the notice lays out estimates for what a three-person household might use simultaneously, concluding that a mix of Netflix streaming, Skype calling, Dropbox file transfers and basic e-mail and browsing would call for download rates of 10 Mbps and upload rates of 2.9 Mbps, at least.
The attention to increasing minimum upload speeds is consistent with recent moves in the broadband industry to offer "symmetrical" speeds, meaning equal upload and download rates. Verizon, for instance, estimates that uploads on its network will double in the next two years.
We knew this proposal was coming. Now that it's dropped, however, we can see precisely what the FCC has in mind. And the suggestion seems clear: 4 Mbps just doesn't cut it anymore in today's information age.