FCC Ups Sec. 706 Broadband Speed to 25 Mbps

Concludes That Is To Be Benchmark For Advanced Telecom Deployment
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As expected, the FCC majority has voted to up the definition of high-speed broadband in its annual Sec. 706 report from 4 Mbps downstream/1 up, to 25 Mbps down/3 up.

That is in the annual report to Congress on the deployment of advanced telecommunications.

The benchmark is not a mandate for industry to deliver that speed, but it does signal that the FCC considers that to be the definition of advanced telecommunications--or at least that the FCC Democrats do.

The vote was a party line 3-2, with Republicans strongly dissenting.

The report finds that given the increase in online video and the multitasking in most households, lower than 25/3 does not meet the definition of advanced telecom in statute.

The report looks at mobile and satellite, but excludes them from the finding as it has in previous reports, in part because of the lack of data.

The FCC says that when that advanced telecom finding is in the negative, the FCC must take immediate action, so the report is accompanied by a notice of inquiry into how the FCC can accelerate deployment.

B&C/MultiChannel News reported January 7 that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler had circulated a draft of the latest broadband competition report that boosted the speed and once again finds that broadband is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion.

The speed change proposal should not come as a big surprise. When the FCC issued the Notice of Inquiry on the new report back in August it suggested then the definition of “high speed” needs to be increased from the current 4 Mbps downstream/1 Mbps upstream to at least 10/1.5 and might have to go as high as 25/6 Mbps to accommodate or anticipate all those cloud-storing, video-watching, online-educating Americans.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler took aim at ISPs for telling the FCC that no more than 4/1 was needed to meet the advanced definition, while in their marketing materials saying much more was needed to meet the needs of busy families with multiple devices.

In addition, Wheeler had been signaling that at least 10 Mbps, and more likely 25 Mbps should be the new "table stakes" for broadband. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said Thursday that she thinks the FCC should aim even higher. "I think our new threshold should be 100 Megabits," she said . "I think anything short of that shortchanges our children, our future, and our digital economy." 

Republican Ajit Pai agrees.

"Before Humpty Dumpty had a great fall in Through the Looking-Glass, he told Alice, 'When I use a word...it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.' So too, apparently, at the FCC," he said of the decision, "For today’s report declares that 10 Mbps Internet access service is no longer broadband. Only 25 Mbps or more counts. This decision should surprise American consumers. 71% of consumers who can purchase fixed 25 Mbps service—over 70 million households—choose not to. And before today, 58 million Americans thought they had subscribed to mobile broadband.3 But now the FCC says they’re getting something else."

Pai was not happy with the finding that advanced telecom was not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion, which the FCC has interpreted as allowing them to take various regulator steps to fix that deficiency. "The ultimate goal is to seize new, virtually limitless authority to regulate the broadband marketplace," Pai said. "[U]nder its interpretation of section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, the FCC can do that only by determining that broadband is not 'being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion'—or, more colloquially, by ignoring the consistent progress in Internet connectivity that’s obvious to anyone with a digital connection and an analog pulse."

He used to as an example two figures: "98.5% of Americans now live in areas covered by 4G LTE networks (i.e., networks capable of delivering 12 Mbps mobile Internet access)," he said. "That’s 97.99 million more Americans than just two years ago.

"Further, one can only smile at the irony of the Commission’s insistence in finding failure the very same month that Google announces expansion of the Google Fiber project to 18 new cities, companies like Dish introduce over-the-top video options that rely on broadband, and bids for AWS-3 mobile broadband spectrum approach $45 billion. At some point, the agency has to take “yes” for an answer when it comes to broadband deployment," he said.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association had told the FCC that it shouldn't up its Sec. 706 report definition of broadband to 25 Mbps downstream/3 Mbps upstream.  It agreed with Commissioner Pai that the report was an effort to justify its authority, not an accurate assessment of the market.

“The cable industry has consistently delivered faster Internet speeds to American consumers with networks that offer 50 Mbps to 85 percent of U.S. homes, widely available tiers that exceed 100 Mbps and Gigabit speeds in some communities," NCTA said in a statement. "While cable network Internet speeds already meet and exceed the FCC’s new broadband description, we are troubled that the Commission majority has arbitrarily chosen a definition of broadband in its Section 706 report that ignores how millions of consumers currently access the Internet. Instead of an accurate assessment of America’s broadband marketplace and the needs and uses of consumers, the FCC action is industrial policy that is not faithful to Congress’s direction in Section 706 to assess the market, but a clear effort to justify and expand the bounds of the FCC's own authority.”

FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, in his dissent, said that setting an artificially high standard that can't be met makes a mockery of the process, calling it a charade. He criticized the exclusion of mobile and satellite from the report. The report suggests that there may be a day when consumers may need both wired and wireless, he said, which would forever prevent wireless from being a substitute for wired, which he called a vision "completely divorced from reality."

O'Rielly suggested that one of the problems with deployment was the failure to focus on the unserved, and asked where the report talked about lifting barriers to entry. He said he was "deeply disappointed" in the report.

Congress in Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the commission to issue an annual report on whether advanced telecommunications is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion to all Americans, and if it is not, the FCC can take regulatory steps to make it so.

According to the FCC, the congressional definition of advanced telecom is broadband that allows users to “originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics and video” services.