Definition of broadband internet might be in for change

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After years of the same old thing, the rules of broadband internet may finally get rewritten.

Under the current definition, set by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015, internet service counts as “broadband” if it delivers download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (or Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps.

Seven years and one worldwide health disaster later, all eyes are on the FCC to see if it will change that definition again. On Friday, Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposed raising minimum broadband speeds in the United States to 100 Mbps for downloads and 20 Mbps for uploads in a notice of inquiry shared with her fellow commissioners as part of an annual internet service evaluation.

Back when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler affirmed the 25/3 broadband standard, some internet access advocates already thought those speeds felt out of date, a poor reflection of our deepening need to be online. (For context, there’s a pretty good chance your phone has faster internet service than that.)

Those concerns are even more palpable in 2022, now that the glut of content to stream has grown even bigger, and we’ve collected even more gadgetry that requires some kind of lifeline to the web.

“Everything in our homes is connected,” said Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports. “A lot of consumers are now realizing, ‘It’s my fridge, it’s my home security system, it’s my kids on all their devices.’ And it is the TV, and it is computers. I think, if anything, we can now appreciate how much speed you need is not for one device.”

As our lives (at least temporarily) turned inward into the home during the coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of living with a slow internet connection—even one that technically counts as broadband—became even more frustrating. That has been especially true for people in unserved or underserved areas, typically rural ones, where strong internet connections were never a fact of life.

If the FCC manages to raise minimum broadband speeds, the broadband expansion programs meant to connect those locales may finally deliver the substantial connections needed to support remote work, education and more.

“The needs of internet users long ago surpassed the FCC’s 25/3 speed metric, especially during a global health pandemic that moved so much of life online,” Rosenworcel said in a statement last week.

This isn’t the first time since 2015 that lawmakers have taken issue with what they perceived to be a dated definition. In March last year, Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Angus King, I-Maine, Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., called on FCC and other federal officials to update the meaning of “broadband” and ensure its use consistently across government agencies.

“Ask any senior who connects with their physician via telemedicine, any farmer hoping to unlock the benefits of precision agriculture, any student who receives live-streamed instruction, or any family where both parents telework and multiple children are remote learning, and they will tell you that many networks fail to come close to ‘high-speed,’ ” they wrote at the time.

Rosenworcel’s proposed speeds represent a significant jump over the earlier definition, though according to network research firm Ookla, they still fall short of the national median fixed broadband speeds in the United States. But even that could change in time: The chairwoman’s notice of inquiry also raised the idea of an even higher “national goal of 1 Gbps/500 Mbps for the future.”

But floating these notions is one thing; bringing them to life is another.

For now, it’s difficult to say how soon this broadband rebrand could happen. Some past FCC endeavors, such as then-Chairman Ajit Pai’s repeal of net neutrality regulations, took only months to accomplish. Others, like establishing 988 as an easy-to-remember phone number for suicide prevention and mental health services, took more than two years.

Either way, Rosenworcel will eventually need buy-in from other FCC commissioners when the issue comes to a vote. For now, the FCC remains deadlocked across party lines while nominee Gigi Sohn’s confirmation process remains stalled. To some observers, though, the chairwoman may be attempting to move quickly on the matter.

“It looks like she wants to move sooner rather than later,” said Consumer Reports’ Schwantes. “And I would agree that’s a good thing to do.”

FCC spokespeople weren’t immediately reachable for comment.

Even if the fight to redefine broadband lasts longer than expected, that won’t prevent certain communities from getting faster internet service.

In early June, the Treasury Department signed off on plans to award more than $580 million from the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund to Louisiana, New Hampshire, Virginia and West Virginia, all to expand high-speed internet access to people who have never had it before. The following month, it approved another $357 million for Kansas, Maine, Maryland and Minnesota to do the same thing.

Rather than provide the most basic level of broadband, though, each state’s plan commits to delivering even faster service: Think at least 100 Mbps down and up wherever possible. That’s better than the standard Rosenworcel proposed because it treats a household’s upload speeds—important for video calls, remote education and more—on equal footing as download speeds.

In other words, the FCC’s definition of broadband isn’t always the only one that matters. Kathryn de Wit, project director of Pew’s Broadband Access Initiative, said that individual states “have been using higher standards for several years, and federal programs have also adopted similar standards in the last year.”

While the FCC is in some ways playing catch-up on this front, experts say the importance of pushing for a new, overarching definition of broadband internet can’t be overstated.

“It does matter,” Schwantes said. “There are a lot of programs that tie back to the definition of broadband, and a lot of laws that tie back to the definition of broadband.”

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