Congress has struggled to understand the internet for a long time, and a group of six US senators joined a chorus of ignorance today when they submitted a letter to the FCC criticizing it for changing the definition of high-speed internet, The Hill first reported. Last January, the FCC made an obvious and reasonable decision to raise minimum download and upload speeds for "broadband internet" from a measly 4Mbps/1Mbps to 25Mbps/3Mbps. It's important that the government have a reasonable definition of broadband that keeps pace with evolving consumer use, otherwise laws governing deployment of internet according to those standards become essentially useless.
Of course, ISPs that enjoy monopoly conditions in many markets across the US don't like being told to provide better service for their customers, and from the beginning, their Republican allies on the commission panned the new definition. At the time, FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said people could wait to enjoy 4K television for a few more years, and warned that increasing standards could lead us down a slippery slope toward a definition of broadband that supported "interplanetary teleportation."
The letter is almost hilarious in its deep misunderstanding
Today's letter from Steve Daines (R-MT), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Ron Johnson (R-WI), and Cory Gardner (R-CO) is almost hilarious in its deep misunderstanding about how people actually use the internet and what they need. The senators say that the 25Mbps standard is unnecessary because, for example, Netflix only recommends a download speed of 5Mbps for HD video, and Amazon only 3.5Mbps. (The recommendation for 4K video from Netflix is actually 25Mbps, but we suppose lawmakers agree that nobody should enjoy Ultra HD content yet.)
Congress consistently uses ISP talking points
The senators say they are "concerned that this arbitrary 25/3 Mbps benchmark fails to accurately capture what most Americans consider broadband," and that "the use of this benchmark discourages broadband providers from offering speeds at or above the benchmark." If these sound exactly like talking points from Verizon, Comcast, and other major ISPs, that's because they are: Comcast loves to tell Americans that they don't need faster internet, and ISPs join together every time they are about to be regulated to say that regulations will chill their future investments. Ars Technica reported that Republicans in Congress echoed ISP spin about network investments in hearings over net neutrality, but then just three months after the net neutrality rules took effect last year, Comcast posted earnings that showed its capital expenditures actually increased by 11 percent. So the idea that creating a standard will discourage ISPs from meeting that standard is total nonsense.
On a more practical level, probably everyone who has broadband knows that what the ISPs tell you you're getting isn't actually what you get. "Network congestion" and other invisible factors often deliver speeds well below an internet service plan's rating. In fact, virtually all of the major ISPs in the US, including Time Warner Cable, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, which collectively serve the supermajority of broadband customers in the country, reportedly deliver speeds anywhere between 1 percent and 23 percent slower than advertised. Furthermore, anybody who lives with family or roommates knows there's no way in hell that their household internet connection is being used to stream one Netflix show at a time and nothing else. Suddenly that "25Mbps" standard, which could be delivered as slow as 15Mbps or below in actuality, is also being shared by several people who are using the internet for a variety of purposes simultaneously. Once again, Congress' ideas about the internet just don't add up.