FCC Needs To Revise Outdated Definition Of Broadband

Right now, the current FCC definition of broadband includes any service with data speeds of at least 4 Mbps downstream and only 1 Mbps up. In the days before HD video streaming, that was an adequate definition, but those numbers haven’t kept pace with the reality of new technologies or consumer demand. That’s why the FCC has announced that it is looking into possibly revising its standards for broadband.

Additionally, the FCC’s Notice of Inquiry [PDF] seeks to determine whether their should be different broadband benchmarks for wireless and fixed data services, whether (and how) to account for differences in broadband deployment in non-urban areas, and whether it should factor in metrics like latency and data caps as core characteristics of advanced telecommunications capability.

“Because consumers demand increasing levels of bandwidth capacity to support the applications they want to use online, we are asking if it is time to update the benchmark broadband speed,” explained FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. “And as more people adopt faster broadband speeds, we are asking if all consumers, even in the most rural regions, should have greater access to better broadband.”

While a 4 Mbps downstream feed may serve to stream a single higher-quality video on one device, a growing number of homes have multiple users simultaneously downloading and streaming content, meaning the 4 Mbps benchmark does not adequately reflect sufficient broadband service.

And even though most homes and businesses download much more data than they push upstream, allowing 1 Mbps to be the benchmark for broadband means consumers and businesses may be limited in their ability to transmit high-quality video or audio.

“Today’s definition of ‘broadband’ is woefully outdated, especially with consumers living more of their lives on the Internet and relying on broadband for more day-to-day services,” explains Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union. “As technology advances allow companies to provide more complex products, it’s important that the bar is raised for baseline broadband speed so that consumers can get the most out of these services.”

The inquiry is also looking for information on the current state of data caps (or “thresholds” if you’re a Comcast shill).

“We seek comment on what data usage allowances most broadband providers offer today, and the impact of these usage allowances on setting a benchmark,” reads the notice. “For example, do consumers routinely exceed the usage allowance for the service to which they subscribe and if so, is additional capacity available for an additional fee? If so, how frequently do consumers avail themselves of that option?”

The issue of usage caps is complicated by the increased use of smartphones and tablets, which sometimes get their data from wireless providers, but often — especially in the home setting — piggyback on the WiFi network, causing users to hit their data caps at a faster rate.

“Should the Commission consider the fact that some consumers may take broadband service from both fixed and mobile providers, and that one or both of such services might provide unlimited usage?” asks the FCC. “Is a certain amount of data capacity needed, per person or per household, on a monthly basis… Can usage be analyzed without reference to the price and how should we consider the ability to purchase additional usage? If not, are there data available with which the Commission could analyze price adequately?”

Derakhshani says it is encouraging that the FCC is taking a more robust approach to examining broadband, by including things like data caps, price, and quality.

“A comprehensive look at what broadband means would not be complete without examining the entire consumer broadband experience,” she explains.

The notice kicks off a 45-day commenting period, during which consumers can submit feedback to the FCC via its online platform.

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