FCC hears objections to symmetrical broadband definition

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is suggesting raising the national fixed broadband speed benchmark to 100/20 Mbps from its current definition of 25/3 Mbps. Some fiber providers in a letter this month asked for the Commission to propose even higher speeds, at 100/100 Mbps, but a cohort of industry groups have objected to that symmetrical tier being a fair requirement in today's landscape.

Those who responded to the FCC’s ask for comment on the proposal have overwhelmingly supported the benchmark increase, as most would agree that 25/3 Mbps is a slow and outdated speed threshold.

But fiber providers like Google Fiber, ALLO and Ting advocated that upload speeds are just as essential as download speeds, with new realities like work from home and the demands of video conferencing and telehealth. “An asymmetrical standard implies that entertainment use cases for the internet are more important than productivity uses that consistently require more upload bandwidth,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, in its comment to the FCC, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) said future benchmarks like 100/100 Mbps “can only be established in the future, when they become relevant based on marketplace forces and technological advancement.”

“There is a general consensus that the proposed revision of the benchmark is acceptable, with the relatively small number dissenters split between those who argue for maintaining the status quo and those who seek a more substantial upward deviation from the current standard,” said WISPA.

The FCC’s notice also raised the question of whether it should set a future long-term goal for broadband speed, suggesting the potential adoption of a benchmark of 1 Gbps/500 Mbps at a later date.

WISPA submitted comment “strongly opposing setting such an aspirational benchmark.”

A statement from ACA Connects said 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.”

Similarly, the ACAM coalition, a group of rural internet service providers, said that such an increase “would likely increase costs, potentially significantly, for many fixed broadband providers, especially in rural, high-cost areas.”

Among the opposition to symmetrical speed hikes is SpaceX, which said requiring operators to meet a higher symmetrical speed requirement “may needlessly restrict innovation and stifle network investment and adoption of spectrally-efficient systems such as satellite and wireless technologies.”

Whether the FCC decides to update its definition of broadband, and to what speeds, remains to be seen.

‘Future proof’ broadband vs. tech neutrality

In its Notice of Funding Opportunity for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) already defines an underserved location as one that lacks access to reliable broadband service with speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps.

But many consider even those speeds to be not “future-proof.”

In its support for the new 100/20 Mbps standard, the NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association told the FCC to keep future, higher needs in mind.

“Rather than concluding that 100/20 Mbps will always remain sufficient, the Commission should anticipate, and should encourage stakeholders to do the same, that demands for fixed broadband Internet service will continue to increase and to keep this evolving and escalating demand in mind even as near-term objectives must be met,” wrote the NTCA.

The NTCA claimed broadband service providers are “quite capable” of achieving a near-term goal of 100/20 Mbps while also planning toward a longer-term goal that keeps pace with consumer demand.

In terms of BEAD, the NTIA has already expressed a preference for fiber deployments to unserved and underserved locations, despite some protests that fixed wireless can bring connectivity quicker and cheaper than fiber deployments.

USTelecom told the FCC, “speed benchmarks must be technology-neutral so that providers have the flexibility to choose the technology that will best suit each build.”

NCTA – The Internet & Television Association said in its comments to the FCC that arguments for the symmetrical speed tiers offered by fiber are “disconnected from the reality of broadband user experience, investment and deployment and would yield results that have a variety of negative consequences.”

“The weight of the evidence plainly demonstrates that consumer usage has always been highly asymmetrical,” said NCTA.

Still, state broadband offices are planning for BEAD deployment with that fiber preference at the forefront, so many projects through the program are likely to have symmetrical speeds of at least 100/100. In places where states determine that fiber is too expensive and other technologies may be allowed, then speed threshold definitions might come into play.