Connecting state and local government leaders
The FCC last raised the standard definition of broadband in 2015. Since then, demand from users has soared, prompting some to call for raising that standard as states prepare to build more infrastructure.
The last time the Federal Communications Commission raised the standard definition for broadband, the internet was a much different place.
Most people were still commuting to work, relying on their employer’s high-speed internet connection. Netflix was still leaning on its DVD-by-mail operation to support its streaming services.
The news media was starting to better embrace the power of the internet to produce content. And music streaming, which had only been available on a few fringe services, became a crucial component of the music industry. Apple Music entered the fray that year, as did Jay Z’s Tidal.
It was 2015, and the National Telecommunications and Internet Administration had noticed that adoption was growing among groups that traditionally lagged, including senior citizens, minorities and Americans with lower levels of educational attainment.
But the agency also noted that internet use “may be nearing a plateau among segments of the population that have historically been more likely to go online. … [Still] efforts to further boost adoption in the United States should target the particular challenges faced by those who have been less likely to use the Internet.”
The Pew Research Center came to a similar conclusion about plateauing home internet use and found that smartphones were becoming an increasingly popular way to connect.
That was the backdrop for the FCC’s decision to raise its broadband benchmark speed to 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads, up from the 2010 standard of 4 Mbps/1 Mbps. The FCC was concerned that rural broadband wasn’t keeping pace with the “high-quality voice, data, graphics and video offerings” of the time and said the 2010 standard was “dated and inadequate” for closing that digital divide.
Since then, demands on the internet and for greater connectivity have only increased. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for fast, stable internet connections as school, work and most other everyday tasks moved online. While bandwidth is increasing worldwide, the shift in how people learn, work and play has led to increased calls for high-quality broadband that far outstrips the current FCC standard.
That prompted FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel last year to announce a bid to raise the national standard for minimum broadband speeds to 100 Mbps/20 Mbps, and to set a goal of 1 gigabit per second/500 Mbps for the future.
Rosenworcel said in a statement at the time of the announcement that the current standard “masks the extent to which low-income neighborhoods and rural communities are being left behind and left offline.” An FCC spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment on the status of this new push to raise standards.
The status of the FCC’s push to raise broadband standards is unclear—a spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment—but new research supports such an effort.
BroadbandNow, a comparison and research site tracking high-speed internet service in the U.S., found in a recent report about state-level broadband deployment that just 39% of Americans get download speeds of 100Mbps, while only 25% get upload speeds of 25Mbps.
Even with billions of dollars flowing into state coffers under the bipartisan infrastructure law’s program to ensure every U.S. household has access to high-speed internet by 2030, BroadbandNow’s editor-in-chief Tyler Cooper warned that building out broadband that cannot cope with current or future demand will not solve connectivity problems in the long-term.
“When we set these standards, a lot of people just consider, ‘OK, the government defines it as this, but maybe the free market will innovate and push speeds up regardless,’” he said. “In some cases, that does happen in some markets, but the issue is that we rely on these federal standards to essentially set the pace for the billions of dollars that we've spent on broadband deployment efforts, both at the state level and national level.”
Not everyone is convinced of the need to raise speeds, however. Citing guidance from streaming service Netflix, which said streaming an ultra-high definition video only requires a connection with a 15 Mbps speed or higher, Spencer Purnell, director of technology policy at the libertarian think tank Reason Foundation, said while some technologies like virtual reality require very high speeds, many households use only a fraction of their full internet speeds.
“In general, the trend in private household use is that there's less bandwidth being used, because the big bandwidth hogs are coming up with technologies like compression and peering,” Purnell said during a panel discussion at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual summit.
Cooper said it will be incumbent on internet providers and governments to ensure that the infrastructure can handle higher speeds as they become available. The federal government has shown a preference for fiber in its grant paperwork, which can handle faster connections, and Cooper said using that technology where possible could be best.
“On paper, sure, we're wiring more people, maybe there's 1 million new people who can access 25/3 connections, that's awesome that we have those people that could not connect,” he said. “But the issue is if that technology is stagnant, and it is a legacy technology that won't improve meaningfully in the next decade, then for all intents and purposes, those people aren't connected. They're going to be completely outclassed and completely outmoded.”