It’s Time to Redefine Broadband Speeds

A small group of protesters supporting net neutrality protest against a plan by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) head Ajit Pai, during a demonstration on December 7, 2017 in Washington. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP, Getty Images)
A small group of protesters supporting net neutrality protest against a plan by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) head Ajit Pai, during a demonstration on December 7, 2017 in Washington. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP, Getty Images)

Let’s face it: A 25 Mbps download speed isn’t enough internet these days. It wasn’t necessarily enough before the current pandemic, but with many families now working and going to school from home, those with the minimum broadband speed have probably discovered there isn’t enough bandwidth to go around. Which is why it’s time for the FCC to change its already weak definition of minimum broadband, a measly 25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload, to something that accurately reflects the internet needs of households today.

I’m just one person and 25 Mbps would not come close to meeting my needs, especially since I regularly play online games, stream 4K videos, and download hundreds of gigabytes of game data for all the laptops I review for Gizmodo. If that’s not enough for me, it’s not enough for a family trying to manage work and school from home during the pandemic right now. BroadbandNow wants the new definition to be a minimum of 100 Mbps download, 25 Mbps upload to “reflect the shifting needs of an increasingly digital economy.” Considering all the video streaming and gaming many households do on a daily basis, 100 Mbps is the right minimum amount.

In its latest “The State of Broadband in America” published this morning, BroadbandNow points out that covid-19 continues to prove to policy makers that “reliable internet connection is an absolute necessity in the modern world.” Yet much of the U.S. still does not have access to what the FCC defines as minimum broadband. Under the current definition, 93% of the U.S. has access to at least 25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload. Much of that remaining 7% (or 21.3 million according to the FCC) is rural America, part of what is called the Digital Divide, or households in the U.S. that don’t have reliable, affordable access to the internet.

That number is likely higher, though, due to the way the ISPs have reported their internet coverage to the FCC in the past. ISPs were allowed to claim they served an entire area if just one house subscribed to their service within that area, so it’s more like 42 million don’t have minimum broadband access as defined by the FCC, according to BroadbandNow. Though a 2019 study from Microsoft and Nextlink says that number could be as high as 162 million people across the United States. That’s nearly half.

Tricky accounting by ISPs is only part of the problem. In 2015, the FCC changed its minimum broadband definition to the current one from 4 Mbps download, 1 Mbps upload, which had been implemented in 2010. The change in 2015 reflected President Obama and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s desire to close the Digital Divide, especially in rural America. That changed when Trump took office and appointed Aji Pait to the Chairman role. Pai has led the charge dismantling net neutrality — allowing AT&T to bring back zero-rating schemes and Cox to create a paid add-on to its services for people who want to prioritise their gaming internet traffic. Tell me how this helps people get reliable, affordable internet access again?

Taking into account the intervals of time in between the FCC’s definition changes, and how much technology has changed in the last five years alone, we’re overdue for a new, official broadband standard. But the FCC has traditionally been behind the times on this sort of thing. When it first defined broadband back in 1996, it was a measly 200 Kbps download, 200 Kbps upload. For a mind-boggling 14 years it remained the same, even though by the late 2000s video streaming and online gaming were commonplace thanks to services like Netflix and Xbox Live.

The FCC’s broadband speed guide is also still wildly out of touch with how many households connect to and use the internet in their every day lives today too. It says multiplayer online gaming requires a minimum of 4 Mbps. If you’ve ever tried to play Overwatch, PUBG, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, or any other similar type of game at that low of download speed, you know that’s impossible. Because while ISPs work to provide a minimum you likely know minimum doesn’t mean fast or reliable.

Worse, the FCC’s minimum speed definitions only take into account a single device. The higher your internet speed, the better your ability to transmit larger packets of data simultaneously to multiple devices. Even ISPs like Xfinity acknowledge this. If I’m watching a movie on Netflix in Ultra HD 4K video while another person in my household is trying to play Overwatch, and we only have a 25 Mbps internet connection, we’re both going to experience lag because our router splits bandwidth between the two devices.

Imagine being in a household where both parents are working from home and the kids are attending school online, all trying to video conference at the same time with only a 25 Mbps or less connection. Audio and video get out of sync, or lag so bad everyone you’re talking to turns to still images and then you have to restart the program because your internet connection wasn’t fast enough to catch up with all the data that was trying to be transmitted to your computer.

Gaming via a cloud streaming service like Google Stadia or GeForce Now also comes with the same set of issues and bandwidth demands, and perhaps more noticeably, too. I’ve previously tested both services at a download speed of 5 Mbps and encountered massive lag, video pixelation, and connection drops.

BroadbandNow is right in saying the FCC needs to redefine minimum broadband as 100 Mbps download because that will take into account many households that stream video or game on multiple devices at once, and make sure there is enough bandwidth to cover them all. But even if the FCC does eventually decide to redefine minimum broadband, it’s unlikely that ISPs will be on board with it. If the standard was 100 Mbps, that would mean only 75% of the U.S. would be served under the current infrastructure according to BroadbandNow, and would force ISPs to play catch-up. All while limiting many consumers to choose from only one ISP (two if they won the jackpot) in their area and charging outlandish monthly prices for speeds under the FCC defined minimum. I live in a major city and AT&T fibre still isn’t available in my area — but they’ll charge me $US50 ($70) goddamn dollars a month for 18 Mbps, which forces me to get my internet from the only other ISP in my area, Spectrum.

Companies like AT&T and Frontier Communications have been reluctant to take FCC funding to expand minimum broadband access to rural America too. In a December 2019 filing in response to new requirements for the rural broadband fund, Frontier Communications said “a 20 Mbps upload target provides little to no additional benefits to the end user customer.” The new rural broadband fund requirement increased the upload target from 10 Mbps to 20 Mbps, which still falls well under the FCC’s own definition of high-speed internet. Rural broadband access is closer to 2010 standards than it is to modern standards. And back in 2015, AT&T said rural customers didn’t need more than a 4 Mbps download speed.

This sounds like ISPs are making generalized assumptions about people who live in rural parts of the country. Oh, you live on a farm in the middle of nowhere? Why would you need internet to milk cows? The United States Department of Agriculture put it best in a 2019 report:

“Digital technologies in agriculture, including Precision Agriculture, can substantially increase crop and animal yields, improve distribution, and reduce input costs. However, without reliable, affordable high-speed Internet connectivity at both the farmhouse and in the field, many of these technologies cannot realise their full potential. As a result, producers face inconsistent ability to tap into and master new technologies, compromising the higher productivity and greater profitability needed to sustain and grow United States agriculture, meet the dietary needs of a growing global population, and maintain national competitiveness in international markets.”

In other words, dearest ISPs, if you wanna keep throwing stakes on the barbecue every weekend or juice in your kids’ sippy cups, farmers need at least the minimum defined broadband, or higher, to make having access to these technologies worth it.

But that’s only one part of the picture in rural America. Groups like the newly formed American Connection Project Broadband Coalition (ACPBC), comprised of companies like Land O’ Lakes and Microsoft, and organisations like Minnesota Farmers Union, are advocating for better rural broadband and the benefits that it will bring: more resources for remote education, health and mental health services, and job opportunities, just to name a few.

“The American Connection Project Broadband Coalition represents a mix of companies from tech, health care, agriculture, and more who understand the ramifications of our country’s broken internet infrastructure and who have the willingness and expertise to help address this need,” said Beth Ford, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes, Inc. Earlier this month, the ACPBC sent a letter to President Trump and congressional leadership urging them to take real steps toward closing the digital divide.

In the middle of this pandemic, the internet has become far more of a panacea rather than an easy means to do business or binge true crime shows. But even during normal times millions of Americans still lack access to reliable, affordable internet. It may take a while to get ISPs on board with providing equitable access across the entire nation, but at least the FCC can get with the times and accurately reflect appropriate internet download/upload speeds for the average U.S. household.