AT&T and Verizon have asked the Federal Communications Commission not to change its definition of broadband from 4Mbps to 10Mbps, saying many Internet users get by just fine at the lower speeds.
"Given the pace at which the industry is investing in advanced capabilities, there is no present need to redefine ‘advanced’ capabilities," AT&T wrote in a filing made public Friday after the FCC’s comment deadline (see FCC proceeding 14-126). “Consumer behavior strongly reinforces the conclusion that a 10Mbps service exceeds what many Americans need today to enable basic, high-quality transmissions,” AT&T wrote later in its filing. Verizon made similar arguments.
Individual cable companies did not submit comments to the FCC, but their representative, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), agrees with AT&T and Verizon.
“The Commission should not change the baseline broadband speed threshold from 4Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream because a 4/1 Mbps connection is still sufficient to perform the primary functions identified in section 706 [of the Telecommunications Act]—high-quality voice, video, and data,” the NCTA wrote.
About 47 percent of Comcast subscribers get at least 50Mbps, the company says.
The FCC has periodically raised the minimum standard for Internet service to be considered “broadband.” This affects how the commission measures industry progress in deploying sufficient Internet service to Americans, particularly in rural areas where the US subsidizes infrastructure building through the Connect America Fund.
The FCC in 2010 changed its definition of minimum broadband speeds from 200Kbps downstream to 4Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream. Under that definition, the commission found that 94 percent of Americans had access to fixed broadband service in 2012, AT&T noted.
But now the commission says that definition is outdated and has proposed raising the minimum to 10Mbps downstream and some as-yet-to-be-determined upstream speed.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler even suggested in a speech last week that 10Mbps is too low. “A 25Mbps connection is fast becoming ‘table stakes’ in 21st century communications,” he said. At 25Mbps, three-quarters of Americans have, at best, one choice of providers. At 10Mbps, 8.4 percent of Americans have no access, and another 30.3 percent have access from only one provider.
If the definition is kept at 4Mbps, statistics on broadband deployment and competition look a lot better, putting less pressure on telcos to upgrade infrastructure. AT&T and Verizon prefer to keep it that way.
“The Commission’s inquiry seeks comment on whether to adopt a new speed benchmark, such as 10Mbps,” Verizon wrote. “The data confirm that the availability and adoption of higher-speed services continue to steadily increase, and it may well make sense for the Commission to monitor progress with respect to such higher-speed services. At the same time, the data confirm that services providing 4Mbps/1Mbps are still popular and meaningful to consumers.”
Verizon: Cellular data is broadband, too
The FCC is considering whether to establish separate benchmarks for wired and cellular service, and whether cellular service can qualify as a “functional equivalent for fixed broadband.”
Verizon wants cellular to be considered broadband on par with wired service, which would put even less pressure on the companies to make sure rural areas have access to fast wired networks. Verizon and AT&T offer “fixed wireless” service that provides home Internet access from each company’s cellular network, but the services are subject to monthly data caps of 10GB to 30GB. That’s well below the 100GB data cap minimum specified by the FCC in regard to the Connect America Fund.
While AT&T and Verizon both offer extremely fast fiber service in parts of their territory, many of their customers are stuck on slower DSL technology. DSL can provide much more than 10Mbps, but it slows down when delivered over long distances, and many customers end up getting less than advertised speeds. Verizon has 9.1 million Internet subscribers, of which 6.3 million are on fiber-to-the-home. About 70 percent of AT&T’s Internet customers have U-verse fiber to the neighborhood, which provides up to 45Mbps, with the rest mostly on DSL. AT&T’s fiber-to-the-home rollouts are just getting started.
Verizon wants a “stable benchmark” that doesn’t increase much even as technology advances. “For the sake of consistency and to ensure meaningful comparisons over time, the Commission should maintain a relatively stable benchmark for defining broadband, even if the Commission also sees a benefit of tracking the availability and adoption of higher-speed services,” Verizon wrote.
The FCC came up with its broadband proposal in part by calculating how much bandwidth families need to watch streaming video, make Voice over IP calls, browse the Web, and do background syncing of e-mail and other services. The FCC’s conclusion was summarized in this chart:
AT&T objected to the FCC’s calculations, saying “the Commission simply adds these abstract bandwidth amounts together and concludes that the statutory definition should be 10Mbps. Broadband networks and applications today, however, are engineered in ways that efficiently allow concurrent uses, so that less overall bandwidth would typically be necessary.”
AT&T also said “the Commission’s central assumption that consumers need 7Mbps to access high quality video is unsupported and inconsistent with the public positions of major streaming video providers that tell their customers that less is required.”
Netflix recommends 5Mbps for 720p video, 7Mbps for 1080p, and 25Mbps for 4K. Netflix argued that the FCC should adopt a higher broadband standard, saying that “Apple TV recommends a 6Mbps downstream broadband connection for accessing HD video content and 8Mbps for accessing super HD video content.”
Netflix, which has quarreled with ISPs over whether it should have to pay to send traffic into their networks, asked the FCC to account for data caps and other restrictions “that may deter broadband use.”
"The revised benchmark also should account for data caps and other terms of service that may restrict broadband use even when a broadband connection is technically capable of achieving minimum threshold speeds," Netflix wrote. "A gigabit broadband service that heavily penalizes consistent use may be worth less to consumers than a 10Mbps broadband service with no cap or penalty."
There is also debate over the place of satellite in the broadband definition. Satellite provider Hughes Network Systems supports the 10Mbps broadband definition, but it wants the FCC to adopt a more forgiving latency requirement. “Signals traveling at the speed of light from geostationary satellites cannot physically traverse the distance from earth to space in less than 100 milliseconds,” Hughes wrote. “The Commission’s proposed latency threshold thus results in a categorical exclusion of a satellite broadband technology.”
"The 4 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1Mbps upload (4Mbps/1Mbps) speed benchmark is no longer current," the City of Boston wrote. “As the Commission noted, ‘consumers increasingly use VoIP, social networking, video conferencing, and streaming video over their broadband connection.”
The FCC is examining whether satellite’s high latency causes trouble for consumers attempting to use VoIP and video calling services.