How the FCC Impacts Internet Speeds

Slow going

Key Takeaways

  • The FCC believes its current speed benchmarks are still fast enough for American internet users.
  • The FCC’s failure to audit information given to it by ISPs has led to misinformation when working to focus government spending to spread broadband access.
  • Experts believe changes to the speed benchmark and better handling of government subsidizing could help spread broadband access.
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The final report from Ajit Pai, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), found that the agency’s earlier definitions of what constitutes broadband internet still are more than sufficient for what Americans do on the web today.

In 2015, the FCC introduced a change to the agency’s standard definition of broadband. The former minimum speeds of 4 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload were replaced with 25 download and 3 upload, to help account for the increased needs of modern internet users. Almost six years later, Pai and the FCC still consider those benchmarks adequate, despite more people and businesses moving online.

"The current threshold does not reflect the needs of our increasingly online populace," Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow told Lifewire via email. "Many applications that require two-way communications need more than 3 Mbps upload to function optimally, and looking ahead, this current standard does not in any sense reflect the requirements for applications of the near future. Networks we build today must work well tomorrow."

We Need To Go Faster

The FCC is responsible for providing a basic definition of what broadband access is in the United States. Then, internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Spectrum, and AT&T can take that definition and offer services that meet or even exceed those standards.

The reason we’re running into a problem with broadband coverage and connections is that these low speed standards are allowing ISPs to offer less-than-adequate services. These connections usually come with other caveats, like expensive price plans, multi-year contracts, and even data caps, which limit how much broadband a customer can use every month.

"Many applications that require two-way communications need more than 3 Mbps upload to function optimally."

Because the bar is so low, rural areas that must rely on slow satellite internet, or even DSL, are being counted as having access to broadband, despite those connections often not being strong enough to support the basics the FCC says they should.

These basics are outlined in Section 706 of the Telecommunication Act of 1996, which states that the FCC must annually "initiate a notice of inquiry concerning the availability of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans." 

In this case, "advanced telecommunications" is defined by the law as "broadband telecommunications capability that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications using any technology."

The FCC, and Pai in particular, argue that speeds of 25 down and 3 up are more than enough to meet these standards. However, as many Americans have found themselves stuck at home, relying on their internet connections for work and school, these numbers, particular the minimum upload speed, have proven to be far less than what is needed.

Based on a study by the Open Technology Institute, the US median upload speed is only 15 Mbps, compared to the median of 40 Mbps in Europe and 400 Mbps in Asia. At the current standard of 3 Mbps upload, a 1 GB file would take roughly 50 minutes to upload, according to an upload calculator. When you take into account that many work files—especially large projects—can take up multiple gigabytes of space, the time needed to upload and share those files increases proportionally.

Seeing the Big Picture

Perhaps the biggest way the FCC has hindered the spread of universal broadband access across the US is in how it determines where broadband subsidies are needed and where private companies already are filling the gap.

Each year, when undertaking its annual inquiry into the current state of broadband, the FCC requires ISPs to submit information about census blocks that they either currently serve or potentially could serve. This means an entire area's perceived need for broadband could be based on one local customer who has access to internet speeds that match the current benchmark.

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"The current language of the FCC's deployment reporting makes it impossible to accurately measure the digital divide in America," Cooper said via email. "The census block caveat ensures that we will always paint with too broad a brush in communities where broadband is unevenly distributed, and until we adopt an address-level sense of who has service and who doesn't, the gap will never truly be closed."

If the FCC wants to close the digital divide, then it must reevaluate how it determines speed benchmarks and where reliable broadband is available, so that it can fill the gaps as intended.

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