FCC lowers rural speed standard to 8 Mbps down, 800 Kbps up

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Internet service providers who get Connect America Fund subsidies from the Federal Communications Commission have to use the money to deliver service at a minimum of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps up load speeds, in most cases – effectively all cases in California so far. Last week, the FCC defined what that standard really means: subsidised carriers have to run quarterly speed tests that show they’re hitting 80% of the required speed, 80% of the time. As the FCC explains in its order

For example, if a carrier receives high-cost support for 10/1 Mbps service, 80 percent of the download speed measurements must be at or above 8 Mbps, while 80 percent of the upload speed measurements must be at or above 0.8 Mbps.

The required testing process is reasonably rigorous. ISPs can choose the method they use, but the tests have to be run during peak usage times – defined as 6pm to midnight – and measure speed and latency all the way from a customer’s home to (or through) an FCC server, and back. So subsidised ISPs – primarily AT&T and Frontier Communications in California – will be held responsible for their middle mile capacity as well as the final hop to subscribers. Customers have to be randomly selected, but AT&T and Frontier are only obligated to test 50 locations each, although it could end up being more, particularly for Frontier, because it does business in California under subsidiary companies.

It’s not unreasonable to expect a network that’s specced at 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps to deliver 8 Mbps down/800 Kbps up most of the time. But it’s also reasonable to expect a company that’s accepted taxpayer subsidies to deliver service at 10 Mbps/1 Mbps to build enough overhead into its system so it can meet its obligations, most of the time. Unfortunately for rural California, the FCC chose the latter.