FCC’s Query: How Fast Is Broadband?

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The Federal Communications Commission wants more help in coming up with a definition — or multiple definitions — for broadband, as well as other elements of its national broadband plan.

It also wants them ASAP.

The agency said it must seek additional, “tailored” comments on the rollout, starting with a public notice last Thursday focusing on which Internet-access speeds might fit the broadband bill. It set an Aug. 31 deadline for comments, with replies due Sept. 8, and suggested there would be more requests to come.

“In this first Public Notice,” said the FCC, “we seek tailored comment on a fundamental question — how the Plan should interpret the term 'broadband’ as used in the Recovery Act, recognizing that our interpretation of the term as used in that statute may inform our interpretation of the term in other contexts.”

The FCC already asked the question broadly in its notice of inquiry on the national broadband plan, for which it has already received comments and reply comments.

But FCC broadband adviser Blair Levin has said publicly that he was disappointed in those initial responses. The new round of comments is part of what the FCC calls a “pleading cycle.” That is particularly appropriate, since Levin has literally pleaded for more and better input

“In light of the record received in response to the National Broadband Plan Notice of Inquiry and the discussions at the workshops that have been held to date,” said the commission notice, “we recognize that we must seek additional, focused comment on certain specific topics.”

The FCC said Thursday it wants more specific comment on what specifically defines a “minimum threshhold” of broadband service, and how that threshhold would be updated going forward.

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration has already come up with a definition for broadband for its stimulus-grant program, with the FCC’s input. But then-acting FCC chairman Michael Copps made it clear that the NTIA’s definition would not necessarily be adopted by his agency.

For the record, that definition is: “Data transmission technology that provides two-way data transmission to and from the Internet with advertised speeds of at least 768 Kilobits per second downstream and at least 200 Kbps upstream to end users, or providing sufficient capacity in a middle mile project to support the provision of broadband service to end users within the project area.”

The FCC is looking for a more precise definition, noting that upload and download speeds (it uses the term “throughput”) can vary from advertised to actual, or depending on the end point for measurement. In addition, the notice said, there are issues including latency, reliability and mobility that may be relevant in some cases and not in others.

Below are some questions tackled on the FCC form:

  • What form a definition of broadband should take;
  • Whether to develop a single definition, or multiple definitions;
  • Whether an application-based approach to defining broadband would work, and how such an approach could be expressed in terms of performance indicators;
  • What are the key characteristics and specific performance indicators that should be used to define broadband;
  • What segment(s) of the network each performance indicator should measure, such as the local access link to the end user, or an end-to-end path;
  • How factors such as latency, jitter, traffic loading, diurnal patterns, reliability, and mobility should specifically be taken into account;
  • Whether different performance indicators or definitions should be developed based on technological or other distinctions, such as mobility or the provision of the service over a wired or wireless network;
  • The feasibility and verifiability of measuring different performance indicators.”

Other questions include:

  • What minimum thresholds should be assigned to the performance indicators;
  • What are the minimum thresholds necessary for broad classes of applications to function properly;
  • Whether the U.S. should adopt multiple, escalating tiers of minimum thresholds.”

And, given the fact that the Internet evolves at such a lightning-fast pace:

  • What ongoing process should be put in place to update the definition, particularly the threshold levels;
  • How often should such updates should occur;
  • What criteria should be used to adjust thresholds over time;
  • How modifications over time to the definition will affect the Commission’s ability to collect and publish meaningful data on broadband deployment and adoption.”

The FCC must come up with the plan by Feb. 17, 2010, per instructions from Congress. The FCC’s blog (blog.broadband.gov) has even instituted a countdown clock, which the commission also did for its other notable congressionally-mandated Feb. 17 deadline — for the switch to digital.

That DTV countdown clock was eventually reset for June 12, but FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has told Multichannel News that the Feb. 17 broadband plan deadline will be met.

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