Federal regulators will soon raise the minimum definition for broadband by more than 500 percent if Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, gets his way.
The new standard would set the floor for basic broadband at speeds of 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. The change would technically increase the number of U.S. households on sub-par Internet, creating pressure for the FCC to work to bring those households up to the new, faster standard.
Wheeler believes the current threshold — 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up — isn't sufficient in an age of high-definition streaming video and online games. The proposed accounting change would dramatically alter the number of Americans said to be "on broadband." Virtually overnight, nearly 1 in 5 Americans would no longer be served by what the government considers adequate Internet, according to the FCC. That's 55 million Americans, up from an estimated 13.8 million that lack access under the current definition of broadband, according to a forthcoming FCC report.
But that may be a good thing — a recognition of the way technology has improved over time and a sign the government is finally catching up. In 2012, the most recent year for which the FCC has published data, 94 percent of Americans already had access to download speeds of at least 3 Mbps. While that may have been enough for most people then, it represents the bare minimum now. Netflix, for example, recommends a 3 Mbps connection just to sustain a standard-definition video stream.
The FCC's proposed statistical revision to 25 Mbps will likely have far-reaching regulatory implications for Internet providers. The FCC's congressional charter instructs the agency to promote the timely and reasonable deployment of broadband, and setting a higher bar for broadband could give the FCC greater license to expand federal subsidies, write new rules and take other steps to speed up Americans' Internet connections at home and in schools and libraries nationwide.
— Gigi Sohn (@GigiBSohnFCC) January 7, 2015
One controversial step the FCC is considering is whether to intervene against state laws that prevent cities from selling their own, publicly operated Internet service. Advocates of municipal broadband say cities should be free to provide Internet where traditional ISPs fall short. Opponents claim the FCC lacks the authority to step in between states and local jurisdictions.
Wheeler has repeatedly highlighted shortcomings in Americans' ability to access fast, affordable broadband. In a speech last year, the chairman said that while 75 percent of Americans can choose among two or more Internet providers when trying to buy basic, "slow" broadband at 4 Mbps, the number of choices falls off a cliff when consumers look to buy faster plans. In fact, the figures roughly flip: 75 percent of Americans have either one provider to choose from when buying a 25 Mbps plan, or no provider at all.
"A 25 Mbps connection is fast becoming 'table stakes' in 21st-century communications," Wheeler said then.