Broadband access technologies have evolved to the point that 4Mbps seems slow. Even 10Mbps seems slow.
The definition of broadband speed is up for revision. The definition of what constitutes broadband speed depends on the FCC's definition, which has been periodically increased without significant objections. The existing definition states that 4Mbps is the minimum for delivering broadband access. The FCC wants to raise the minimum speed to 10Mbps.
A driving reason for the speed increase is the continued growth of Internet traffic, both for businesses and consumers. Internet usage is expected to grow at a 20% rate, according to the latest Cisco analysis. This is largely due to the adoption of online video, mobile, and cloud applications.
The State of Broadband Access
The national broadband map shows that most Americans can subscribe to broadband services using many technologies. Ninety-five percent have access to fixed broadband, and 88% can choose from two or more fixed providers. Note that this is access and not necessarily connected use. Ninety-nine percent of Americans can get mobile broadband (not necessarily connected), and 97% can select from three or more mobile providers in their area. Ninety-nine percent of Americans can subscribe to a 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download. Upload speeds are usually half the download, except Verizon is upgrading the upload speed to equal the download speed. Eighty-six percent of Americans can subscribe to broadband at 25 Mbps download or faster.
I do not believe the national broadband map. I live in Arlington, VA, and down the street is a state park. The homes on the other side of the park cannot subscribe to Verizon FiOS because Verizon does not want to run the cable through the park. They cannot access DSL service because they are too far from the C.O. There a few homes that can get cable service but not FiOS service. I wonder how many other parts of the U.S. have patches of limited Internet service like this. The broadband map does not show these pockets of limited service.
FCC Broadband Inquiry
Broadband access technologies have evolved to the point that 4Mbps seems slow. Even 10Mbps seems slow. The FCC wants comments on the next generation of broadband speed definition. The FCC Commission document "Inquiry Concerning the Deployment of Advanced Telecommunications Capability to All Americans in a Reasonable and Timely Fashion, and Possible Steps to Accelerate Such Deployment Pursuant to Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996" solicits comments on the proposed increase in the broadband speed definition.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has stated, "We [the FCC] have proposed increasing the throughput in order to get Universal Service funds from 4Mbps to 10Mbps for precisely the reason that you mentioned, that you can't have a digital divide. When 60% of the Internet's traffic at prime time is video, and it takes 4 or 5Mbps to deliver video, a 4Mbps connection isn't exactly what's necessary in the 21st century. And when you have half a dozen different devices, wireless and other connected devices in a home that are all going against that bandwidth, it's not enough. What we are saying is we can't make the mistake of spending the people's money, which is what Universal Service is, to continue to subsidize something that's subpar."
US Telecom issued a research brief "Latest Data Show Broadband Investment Surged in 2013." Using the term "surge" is overrating the investment. Looking at the chart from the brief, the investment increase is about 9% - not really a surge.
The investment has remained relatively flat for the past decade. I think that the ISPs' anticipated investment will have to increase to keep up with an increase in minimum broadband speed.
Reaction by the ISPs
AT&T and Verizon do not like the idea of increasing the broadband speed minimum. The ISPs have a stake in keeping the broadband speed as presently defined. If the minimum speed increases, then ISPs will:
• Need to change their marketing themes
• Admit that many of their customers do not have broadband access
• Probably have to increase their investments
None of the above is attractive to them.
Verizon's response is contained in this "GN Docket No. 14-126" document. The Verizon conclusion states, "The Commission should confirm that broadband services are being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion in the overwhelming majority of the country, and the Commission should continue to pursue policies that encourage broadband investment and innovation."
By this, I interpret that Verizon sees that increasing the broadband speed will encourage ISPs to invest less in broadband access. I do not believe that Verizon will reduce their investments, but it will have to increase investment to satisfy the delivery of higher speed Internet access.
AT&T as well commented to the FCC. AT&T stated in their comments, "The commission should not artificially narrow the definition of broadband to require certain capabilities (such as the ability to stream HD video to multiple users simultaneously), and should instead study the full range of services that consumers demand and the variety of services they are using to fill these varied needs."
The goal here with AT&T's response is to delay any changes. This is a tactic that in the end will be defeated.
I do not see the argument against raising the broadband speed. If you review the data above in The State of Broadband Access, most Internet users already have access to speeds at or above 10 Mbps. So the ISPs can already deliver the 10Mbps speed. I think that with a defined higher speed, it will become evident that having potential access according to the national broadband map does not translate to affordable broadband access.
I would like to see the definition not only increase the download speed, but also offer symmetrical speed, or equal speed in both directions. When the Internet first emerged, consumers downloaded more content than they generated. Today, with wide spread use of videos and photos, the consumer needs a higher upload speed.
If the definition changes, so will the national broadband map. There will be less broadband coverage. This does not look good for the ISPs and their image. The increased minimum speed will demonstrate how much of the U.S. is not covered with an acceptable broadband access speed. Changing the definition hurts the marketing of the ISPs, and that is why they do not want the speed increase.
Some previous blogs of interest are: "Broadband Access in 90% of Computer Households," "FCC Promotes Broadband Lifeline," "Broadband Access: Not in Everyone's Back Yard," and "The Broadband Availability Gap: Traffic Modeling Challenges."