FCC cranks fixed broadband standard up a notch

  • The FCC released its first report in three years assessing the state of broadband deployment in the U.S.

  • Its report included a new and improved definition for fixed broadband services, at 100/20 Mbps

  • While the updated benchmark has been widely accepted, it will potentially set the stage for debate around how the FCC's standards impact tech neutrality

After nearly a decade, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is finally raising the bar with a new definition for broadband of 100/20 Mbps. The upgraded definition for fixed broadband service could influence billions in federal and state broadband funding and might stir up more debate around "tech neutrality,” according to some experts.

Under the Telecommunications Act, Congress requires the FCC to regularly assess and report on broadband deployment. The new 100/20 standard was among several changes included in the Commission's first report in three years, and marks a substantial departure from its old benchmark of 25/3 Mbps, set in 2015. 

Everyone has pretty much been in agreement that benchmark is out of date. Some states like Iowa, Minnesota, Washington and Texas had already left the 25/3 Mbps definition in the dust, creating their own, higher benchmarks for state broadband programs. Yet, many U.S. households are still lacking 100/20 Mbps service. Recent data from Ookla showed that even as of late 2023, the bottom 10% of users were still dragging along with download speeds of 26.54 Mbps and upload speeds of 6.81 Mbps, or worse.

Let's be real: tweaking benchmarks won't magically speed up everyone's internet. But what it can do is bring alignment to federal broadband programs.

At a meeting today FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the “overdue” benchmark change aligns the Commission with other legislation, like the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and matches standards for other federal and state programs like the NTIA’s BEAD Program and several USF programs. “It also helps us better identify the extent to which low-income neighborhoods and rural communities today are underserved,” she added.

Pew analyst Kathryn de Wit told Fierce Telecom the new 100/20 Mbps definition will influence how the FCC measures progress against funding requirements set forward by Congress and the states.

Although, the FCC’s definition for broadband is not just used to measure progress at a given point in time, de Wit added. Depending on the program, the networks funded by those programs may not be operational for several years. Even 100/20 Mbps, she said, may be insufficient for many current and future needs, like working from home, remote learning and telehealth services.

In all, De Wit said the updated benchmark is good progress, but it doesn’t change the shortcomings of measuring service based on "a theoretical maximum speed a customer could receive rather than the reality of what they will receive day-to-day.”

What does a higher benchmark mean for tech neutrality?

Broadband providers and equipment vendors that have invested in high-speed network deployments should overall be happy with the Commission’s new standard, which reflects modern networking capabilities, Monument Advocacy analyst Andrew Lock said.

But even incremental updates to minimum deployment standards may “eventually limit” the Commission’s ability to remain technologically agnostic with future funding, Lock told Fierce.

In December, some fiber providers asked for the Commission to propose even higher speeds, at 100/100 Mbps. NRECA, representing electric co-ops, today reiterated its long-standing position that the FCC should move to set "future-proof benchmark speeds" of at least 100/100 Mbps, to ensure the broadband needs of rural communities can be met as demand continues to grow.

There have been some objections that a symmetrical tier wouldn’t be a fair requirement in today's landscape and would clearly favor fiber technology. The likes of SpaceX, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association and US Telecom have argued that benchmarks should remain technology-neutral “so that providers have the flexibility to choose the technology that will best suit each build.”

Commissioner Brendan Carr, who has criticized the BEAD program’s fiber priority, voted against the report for several reasons, including that it leaves out satellite broadband, which he said is now capable of 100/20 Mbps speeds.

Carr said he can agree that the FCC should be aiming for 100/20 Mbps internet speeds in its programs, “which we've been doing since at least 2016.” However, he claimed the report uses that benchmark to disregard technology neutrality and the language that Congress used when assigning the FCC to create the report.

The FCC report also set a long-term goal for broadband speed, proposing a benchmark of 1 Gbps/500 Mbps. Commissioners Carr and Nathan Simington, who also dissented, questioned the necessity of such high speeds, expressing concerns about the potential for over spending and over building.

"We need to be able to articulate the use cases for such high speeds that justify making the taxpayer subsidize deployment of such service to every quarter of the country," Simington said at a meeting attended by Rosenworcel, along with Commissioners Starks and Gomez, who approved the report. Simington added, "This report doesn't get there, and I fear that instead it sets the stage for a generation of wasteful spending."

A statement from ACA Connects in December similarly said that although there is increasing demand for broadband at speeds that exceed 100/20 Mbps, “there is no evidence to suggest that 1 Gbps/500 Mbps is emerging or will soon emerge as the baseline level of service that is necessary to meet typical user needs.”