What is “broadband” speed and why does it matter?

by on September 20, 2017 · 0 comments

Internet regulation advocates are trying to turn a recent FCC Notice of Inquiry about the state of US telecommunications services into a controversy. Twelve US Senators have accused the FCC of wanting to “redefin[e] broadband” in order to “abandon further efforts to connect Americans.”

Considering Chairman Pai and the Commission are already considering actions to accelerate the deployment of broadband, with new proceedings and the formation of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, the allegation that the current NOI is an excuse for inaction is perplexing.

The true “controversy” is much more mundane–reasonable people disagree about what congressional neologisms like “advanced telecommunications capability” mean. The FCC must interpret and apply the indeterminate language of Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, which requires the FCC about whether to determine “whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion.” If the answer is negative, the agency 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 inquiry is reported in an annual “Broadband Progress Report.” Much of the “scandal” of this proceeding is confusion about what “broadband” means.

What is broadband?

First: what qualifies as “broadband” download speed? It depends.

The OECD says anything above 256 kbps.

ITU standards set it at above 1.5 Mbps (or is 2.0 Mbps?).

In the US, broadband is generally defined as a higher speed. The USDA’s Rural Utilities Service defines it as 4.0 Mbps.

The FCC’s 2015 Broadband Progress Report found, as Obama FCC officials put it, that “the FCC’s definition of broadband” is now 25 Mbps. This is why advocates insist “broadband access” includes only wireline services above 25 Mbps.

But in the same month, the Obama FCC determined in the Open Internet Order that anything above dialup speed–56 kbps–is “broadband Internet access service.”

So, according to regulation advocates, 1.5 Mbps DSL service isn’t “broadband access” service but it is “broadband Internet access service.” Likewise a 30 Mbps 4G LTE connection isn’t a “broadband access” service but it is “broadband Internet access service.”

In other words, the word games about “broadband” are not coming from the Trump FCC. There is no consistency for what “broadband” means because prior FCCs kept changing the definition, and even use the term differently in different proceedings. As the Obama FCC said in 2009, “In previous reports to Congress, the Commission used the terms ‘broadband,’ ‘advanced telecommunications capability,’ and ‘advanced services’ interchangeably.”

Instead, what is going on is that the Trump FCC is trying to apply Section 706 to the current broadband market. The main questions are, what is advanced telecommunications capability, and is it “being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion”?

Is mobile broadband an “advanced telecommunications capability”?

Previous FCCs declined to adopt a speed benchmark for when wireless service satisfies the “advanced telecommunications capability” definition. The so-called controversy is because the latest NOI revisits this omission in light of consumer trends. The NOI straightforwardly asks whether mobile broadband above 10 Mbps satisfies the statutory definition of “advanced telecommunications capability.”

For that, the FCC must consult the statute. Such a capability, the statute says, is technology-neutral (i.e. includes wireless and “fixed” connections) and “enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications.”

Historically, since the statute doesn’t provide much precision, the FCC has examined subscription rates of various broadband speeds and services. From 2010 to 2015, the Obama FCCs defined advanced telecommunications capability as a fixed connection of 4 Mbps. In 2015, as mentioned, that benchmark was raised 25 Mbps.

Regulation advocates fear that if the FCC looks at subscription rates, the agency might find that mobile broadband above 10 Mbps is an advanced telecommunications capability. This finding, they feel, would undermine the argument that the US broadband market needs intense regulation. According to recent Pew surveys, 12% of adults–about 28 million people–are “wireless only” and don’t have a wireline subscription. Those numbers certainly raise the possibility that mobile broadband is an advanced telecommunications capability.

Let’s look at the three fixed broadband technologies that “pass” the vast majority of households–cable modem, DSL, and satellite–and narrow the data to connections 10 Mbps or above.*

Home broadband connections (10 Mbps+)
Cable modem – 54.4 million
DSL – 11.8 million
Satellite – 1.4 million

It’s hard to know for sure since Pew measures adult individuals and the FCC measures households, but it’s possible more people have 4G LTE as home broadband (about 28 million adults and their families) than have 10 Mbps+ DSL as home broadband (11.8 million households).

Subscription rates aren’t the end of the inquiry, but the fact that millions of households are going mobile-only rather than DSL or cable modem is suggestive evidence that mobile broadband offers an advanced telecommunications capability. (Considering T-Mobile is now providing 50 GB of data per line per month, mobile-only household growth will likely accelerate.)

Are high-speed services “being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion”?

The second inquiry is whether these advanced telecommunications capabilities “are being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion.” Again, the statute doesn’t give much guidance but consumer adoption of high-speed wireline and wireless broadband has been impressive.

So few people had 25 Mbps for so long that the FCC didn’t record it in its Internet Access Services reports until 2011. At the end of 2011, 6.3 million households subscribed to 25 Mbps. Less than five years later, in June 2016, over 56 million households subscribed. In the last year alone, fixed providers extended 25 Mbps or greater speeds to 21 million households.

The FCC is not completely without guidance on this question. As part of the 2008 Broadband Data Services Improvement Act, Congress instructed the FCC to use international comparisons in its Section 706 Report. International comparisons also suggest that the US is deploying advanced telecommunications capability in a timely manner. For instance, according to the OECD the US has 23.4 fiber and cable modem connections per 100 inhabitants, which far exceeds the OECD average, 16.2 per 100 inhabitants.**

Anyways, the sky is not falling because the FCC is asking about mobile broadband subscription rates. More can be done to accelerate broadband–particularly if the government frees up more spectrum and local governments improve their permitting processes–but the Section 706 inquiry offers little that is controversial or new.

 

*Fiber and fixed wireless connections, 9.6 million and 0.3 million subscribers, respectively, are also noteworthy but these 10 Mbps+ technologies only cover certain areas of the country.

**America’s high rank in the OECD is similar if DSL is included, but the quality of DSL varies widely and often doesn’t provide 10 Mbps or 25 Mbps speeds.

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