FCC broadband speed standard isn't "advanced" anymore

27 February 2018 by Steve Blum
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Don’t be fooled. What the Federal Communications Commission labels “advanced telecommunications capability” is just the basic minimum broadband speed you need to access online services today. It’s advanced in the same sense that London’s New Inn, built in 1810 to replace the original, is new: it seemed that way at the time.

The concept of advanced online services was introduced into federal policy in 1996, when the U.S. congress last overhauled federal telecoms law. That’s when 256 Kbps DSL service was a dream beyond the reach of all but a lucky few. Most of us were happy if we had a 56 Kbps modem and a clean enough dial up circuit to use it.

So “advanced” means something better than email and text-based websites. The 1996 law, and consequently the FCC, defines “advanced telecommunications capability” as “high-speed, switched, broadband telecommunications capability that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications using any technology”.

By that definition, the FCC’s 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speed standard for advanced capability doesn’t completely make the grade for today’s applications, services and content. You can watch a 4K video stream – the current benchmark for “high quality” video – with 25 Mbps service. You need a steady 15 Mbps data stream, which a connection advertised at 25 Mbps has a good chance of delivering reliably. But if someone else in your home wants to watch another 4K program, or even send and receive some high-quality data and graphics, it’ll choke.

You can’t originate 4K vido with a 3 Mbps upstream connection, though. All that will get you is standard definition video – the old school, 525-line analog standard we had in the 1990s, before digital high definition formats went mainstream.

But for day to day business and entertainment purposes, 25/3 service is arguably sufficient. Service at 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps – the FCC’s limit for subsidies – won’t cut it. And 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up – the lower standard set last year by the California legislature at the behest of AT&T, Frontier Communications, Comcast and friends – doesn’t even come close.

The excuse they used was that 25/3 speeds are “aspirational”. The FCC’s latest, bipartisan endorsement of that standard reaffirms it’s the minimum we need in today’s world. Arguments to the contrary are self serving nonsense.