When we say “broadband internet,” we think that means “fast connections.” But as far as the actual regulations are concerned, that’s not necessarily true. To the FCC, “broadband” means anything with download speeds higher than 3 Mbps. Sure, that’s literally a hundred times faster than a 1993 dial-up connection — but as we move more and more into an all-online, all-streaming future, it’s just not enough. And so the FCC is considering changing the definition to match reality.
As the Washington Post reports, the FCC will likely soon put forth a proposal to redefine the minimum “high-speed” broadband connection to download speeds of 10 or even 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps.
The FCC’s 2013 report (PDF) on broadband adoption in the U.S. showed that as of December 2012, over 19 million home internet connections were slower than 3 Mbps and another 15 million were slower than 6 Mbps. That’s about 35 million “broadband” subscribers whose speeds wouldn’t meet the new definition.
And that, of course, is only counting places where a connection is available at all. The FCC has estimated that about 6% of the country is still not reached by home broadband connections, a number that would likely increase if the definition of service also went up.
The actual new minimum threshold will depend on the response the proposal gets from the public, according to the Post. It is clear, though, that 3 Mbps just doesn’t really cut it anymore in 2014, to say nothing of the years beyond. Watching HD streaming video from Netflix requires a stable 5 MBps connection, as does live-streaming video games.
Likewise the still-nascent 4K video standard, higher definition still than HD, requires a 15 Mbps downstream connection. The Post also points out that what may be a sufficiently high speed for one adult living alone and not binge-watching TV shows on Netflix may not be sufficient for a family where everyone is trying to move large amounts of data at the same time.
Stability is also important: just because a connection can reach a speed like 50 or 100 Mbps doesn’t mean it always will. The FCC is willing to take that into account, says the Post. “In addition to asking whether the old broadband definition is still adequate for today’s typical usage patterns,” they report, “it’ll ask the public whether the FCC should adopt a tiered set of definitions to account for varying speeds in different regions or during different times of day.”
Consumers in this country still pay far more for slower service than our counterparts around the world. If regulators redefine broadband as a higher speed than it currently is, that could hopefully exert pressure along the whole chain to increase speeds nationwide.
As we look at a future where even your kitchen appliances want to use your home’s always-on connection, making sure the minimum standard for broadband actually matches Americans’ minimum needs is a good thing.