As part of its 2015 Broadband Progress Report, the Federal Communications Commission has voted to change the definition of broadband by raising the minimum download speeds needed from 4Mbps to 25Mbps, and the minimum upload speed from 1Mbps to 3Mbps, which effectively triples the number of US households without broadband access. Currently, 6.3 percent of US households don’t have access to broadband under the previous 4Mpbs/1Mbps threshold, while another 13.1 percent don't have access to broadband under the new 25Mbps downstream threshold.
FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler was vehement in his support for the new broadband standard. "When 80 percent of Americans can access 25-3, that's a standard. We have a problem that 20 percent can't. We have a responsibility to that 20 percent," Commissioner Wheeler said.
"We are never satisfied with the status quo. We want better. We continue to push the limit, and that is notable when it comes to technology," FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said. "As consumers adopt and demand more from their platforms and devices, the need for broadband will increase, requiring robust networks to be in place in order to keep up. What is crystal clear to me is that the broadband speeds of yesteryear are woefully inadequate today and beyond."
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wants to increase the minimum broadband standards far past the new 25Mbps download threshold, up to 100Mbps. "We invented the internet. We can do audacious things if we set big goals, and I think our new threshold, frankly, should be 100Mbps. I think anything short of that shortchanges our children, our future, and our new digital economy," Commissioner Rosenworcel said.
"I think our new threshold, frankly, should be 100Mbps."
Taking his argument against changing the broadband standard into deep space, FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said "the report notes that 4K TV requires 25Mbps, but 4K TV is still relatively new and is not expected to be widely adopted for years to come. While the statute directs us to look at advanced capability, this stretches the concept to an untenable extreme. Some people, for example, believe probably incorrectly that we are on a path to interplanetary teleportation. Should we include the estimated bandwidth for that as well?"
Changing the national broadband standards to 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up is a bold move for the FCC, which has faced opposition from cable providers which are staunchly against this measure, as it essentially removed DSL services from the broadband discussion. While cable and fiber optic services can easily meet the new standards, DSL — which is delivered over telephone lines — generally never reach the new download threshold.
Current DSL offerings won't be considered broadband under new rules
Companies like AT&T and Verizon, which employ DSL services to a notable number of their users — 4 million of AT&T’s 16 million broadband subscribers and 2.6 million of Verizon’s 9.2 million subscribers have DSL. AT&T’s fastest DSL offerings only reach 6Mbps down, while Verizon’s DSL speeds top out at 15Mbps, and that won’t be increasing, at least on Verizon’s end. Speaking to Ars Technica, a Verizon spokesperson said "we currently do not have any plans to enhance that." As you would expect, cable companies weren’t too happy about the new rule.
In a letter sent to the FCC last week, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) made known its objections to any changes to current broadband standards, stating that examples used by supporters of raising the broadband standards "dramatically exaggerate the amount of bandwidth needed by the typical broadband user." Netflix is one of those supporters pushing for a higher broadband standards, as faster broadband speeds are needed to stream its 4K content, and will increase its potential for more subscribers. But right now, Netflix’s interests and the public’s interests are aligned — everyone wants faster broadband internet except for the people who have to provide the service.
The NCTA told the FCC that 25Mbps down isn't needed for 4K streaming — the number Netflix recommends for anyone streaming its Ultra HD content — and that users aren't even interested in higher quality content yet. "Netflix, for instance, bases its call for a 25 Mbps download threshold on what it believes consumers need for streaming 4K and Ultra HD video content — despite the fact that only a tiny fraction of consumers use their broadband connections in this manner," the NCTA said. "...The consensus among others in the industry that 25 Mbps is significantly more bandwidth than is needed for 4K streaming."
While you may not need a minimum download speed of 25Mbps to stream 4K content, it wouldn't hurt, and standing pat with subpar US broadband capabilities just isn't a viable option at this point. With the US currently ranked 25th in the world in broadband speeds, the FCC's decision will force cable providers to step up speeds for everyone, something that probably would have happened with even a little competition in the broadband market.