In redefining the speed goals for funding, the US Senate may have effectively boosted broadband speeds to 100/20

Doug Dawson looks at the Senate infrastructure bill and highlights an important action – the Senate just increased the definition of broadband for funding purposes and that the definition that matters…

The recently passed Senate infrastructure legislation included a new definition of an underserved household as being a location that lacks access to reliable broadband service offered with a speed of not less than 100 megabits per second for downloads; and 20 megabits per second for uploads, plus a latency sufficient to support real-time, interactive applications. It’s hard to see this as anything other than a new definition of broadband.

A brief history of broadband speed definitions…

In 2015, the FCC established the current definition of broadband as 25/3 Mbps (that’s 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload). Prior to 2015, the FCC definition of broadband was 4/1 Mbps, set a decade earlier. The FCC didn’t use empirical evidence like speed tests in setting the definition of broadband in 2015. They instead conducted what is best described as a thought experiment. They listed the sorts of functions that a “typical” family of four was likely to engage in and then determined that a 25/3 Mbps broadband connection was enough speed to satisfy the broadband needs of a typical family of four.

The FCC asked the question again in 2018 and 2020 if 25/3 Mbps was still an adequate definition of broadband. The Commission took no action and concluded that 25/3 Mbps was still a reasonable definition of broadband. There were comments filed by numerous parties that argued that the definition of broadband should be increased.

And the meat of the issue…

All of this is politics, of course, and homes and businesses know if broadband is adequate without the FCC setting some arbitrary speed as magically being broadband. Is the home that gets 27 Mbps all that different than one that’s getting 23 Mbps? Unfortunately, when it comes to being eligible for federal grant monies it matters.

I think there is a good argument to be made that the Senate just preempted the FCC in setting the definition of broadband. Declaring that every home or business with speeds less than 100/20 Mbps is underserved is clearly just another way to say that speeds under 100/20 Mbps are not good broadband.

Of course, the FCC could continue to use 25/3 Mbps as the definition of broadband for the purposes of the annual report to Congress. But Congress just changed the definition of broadband that matters – the one that comes with money.

This is a timely conversation worldwide as many households and communities felt the punch of COVID quarantines and broadband issues. In Minnesota, the MN Broadband Task Force have committed to look at the definition of speeds (or speed goals) this year.