Speedier broadband standards? Pai’s FCC says 25Mbps is fast enough

EnlargeJan Fabre

The Federal Communications Commission is proposing to maintain the US broadband standard at the current level of 25Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream. That’s the speed standard the FCC uses each year to determine whether advanced telecommunications capabilities are “being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” The FCC raised the standard from 4Mbps/1Mbps to 25Mbps/3Mbps in January 2015 under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Ajit Pai, who was then a commissioner in the FCC’s Republican minority, voted against raising the speed standard. As FCC chairman since 2017, Pai has kept the standard at 25Mbps/3Mbps despite calls to raise it from Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. This week, he proposed keeping the standard the same for another year.

“This inquiry fundamentally errs by proposing to keep our national broadband standard at 25Mbps,” Rosenworcel said yesterday. “It is time to be bold and move the national broadband standard from 25 Megabits to 100 Megabits per second. When you factor in price, at this speed the United States is not even close to leading the world. That is not where we should be and if in the future we want to change this we need both a more powerful goal and a plan to reach it.

Our failure to commit to that course here is disappointing. I regretfully dissent.” While Pai’s proposal isn’t yet finalized, keeping the current speed standard would likely mean that Pai’s FCC will conclude that broadband deployment is already happening fast enough throughout the US.

Pai could use that conclusion in attempts to justify further deregulation of the broadband industry.

Public comments due next month

Pai’s proposal came in a Notice of Inquiry that seeks public comment on how the FCC should conduct its annual broadband deployment assessment, which will likely be released early in 2019. “We propose to maintain the 25Mbps/3Mbps benchmark, and we seek comment on this proposal,” the notice says. US law defines advanced telecommunications capability as service “that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications using any technology.”

The FCC previously found that the “speed benchmark of 25Mbps/3Mbps was the appropriate measure to assess whether fixed services provides advanced telecommunications capability,” the FCC notice said. Comments can be submitted at this webpage. Initial comments are due on September 10, and reply comments are due on September 24.

Specifically, the 25Mbps/3Mbps standard is used to judge whether home and business broadband technologies such as cable and fiber provide “advanced telecommunications capability.” The FCC’s annual assessment also evaluates deployment of mobile broadband, but the FCC hasn’t chosen a single speed benchmark for mobile access. Pai’s FCC previously concluded that “adoption of a single speed benchmark was unworkable given the inherent variability of the mobile experience,” and yesterday’s notice seeks comment on whether to maintain that approach.

Is mobile or satellite good enough?

Despite not adopting a mobile speed standard, the FCC could determine that parts of America have enough broadband even if they only have mobile service. The FCC said it calculates the number of Americans with access to advanced telecommunications services “by summing the population of all of the census blocks with at least one provider of services, whether the calculation is considering fixed terrestrial services, all fixed services, mobile LTE services, a combination of fixed and mobile LTE services, or a combination of fixed or mobile LTE services.”

Pai’s FCC last year invited criticism by suggesting that mobile Internet might be all Americans need. By contrast, the Obama-era FCC concluded that Americans need home and mobile access because the two types of services have different capabilities and limitations. Pai’s FCC eventually acknowledged that mobile broadband is not a full substitute for home Internet services.

Keeping the 25Mbps/3Mbps standard for home Internet service and no specific standard for mobile would make it easier for the FCC to conclude that broadband progress is happening quickly enough. Even satellite services are now offering 25Mbps download speeds. “Based upon June 2017 FCC Form 477 data, fixed terrestrial broadband with speeds of at least 25Mbps/3Mbps has been deployed to approximately 93 percent of all Americans, including approximately 98 percent of Americans in urban areas and 70 percent of Americans in rural areas,” the FCC notice said. The FCC has been including satellite services in its estimates of broadband deployment, despite the poor latency and low data caps of current satellite technologies.

The FCC is asking for public input on that approach, saying, “We seek comment on this treatment of satellite service, including how the Commission should take into account any possible limitations, such as satellite capacity, in the geographic scope of reported satellite coverage.” So far, the FCC has declined to adopt a latency benchmark that would exclude current satellite services from counting as advanced telecommunications. Future satellite services delivered from low-Earth orbits might solve satellite’s latency problem, however.

Pai offered no data for broadband claim

During the Obama presidency, the FCC regularly found that broadband deployment wasn’t happening quickly enough. But Pai’s FCC concluded in February 2018 that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion, and it credited Pai’s net neutrality repeal for turning things around.

But that February 2018 report was issued more than four months before the repeal was finalized and thus contained no data to support Pai’s claim that repealing net neutrality rules sped up broadband deployment. The only proof Pai cited were deployments by four companies. As we wrote in February, “three of these four deployments were planned during the Obama administration, and two were funded directly by the FCC before Pai was the chair.

All four came from ISPs that had announced broadband expansions before Pai took over, with the net neutrality rules in place.” FCC data generally lags behind the present time by about a year, so even the next report may not have any data from after the net neutrality repeal. The February 2018 report was based on data through December 2016, and the 2019 report may be based on data through December 2017.

Pai’s repeal was voted through in December 2017 and implemented in June 2018.

Although the 25Mbps/3Mbps fixed broadband speed was the only official benchmark the FCC used to judge progress in its February 2018 report, the report also presented deployment data from several other speed tiers.

“The 2018 Report presented deployment figures for three speed tiers for fixed services, specifically our 25Mbps/3Mbps speed benchmark, 10Mbps/1Mbps, and 50Mbps/5Mbps; and for two speed tiers for mobile LTE, specifically 5Mbps/1Mbps and 10Mbps/3Mbps,” yesterday’s notice said. “We seek comment on whether our upcoming report should report on any additional speed tiers and, if so, which speed tiers.”

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