FCC head wants to boost ‘broadband’ standard to 100Mbps nationwide

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel asked her colleagues to consider increasing the minimum broadband standard of 25Mbps to at least 100Mbps — and possibly 1Gbps. The change could help people working from remote locations.

A distributed network of wireless connections spans a cityscape.
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The chair of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants redefine “broadband” Internet as being capable of at least 100 megabits per second (or Mbps) download and 20Mbps upload speeds.

A change in the current, seven-year-old standard for broadband would almost certainly spur networking companies to upgrade equipment to meet the new benchmark. And it would increase data download and upload capacities across the internet — a key upgrade for remote and hybrid workers, the ranks of which swelled dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently, broadband is defined as networks offering a minimum of 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload speeds.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposed raising the standard to 100Mbps/20Mbps on Friday, arguing that the old metric is “behind the times."

“The needs of internet users long ago surpassed the FCC’s 25/3 speed metric, especially during a global health pandemic that moved so much of life online,” Rosenworcel wrote in her notice of the change. “The 25/3 metric isn’t just behind the times, it’s a harmful one because it masks the extent to which low-income neighborhoods and rural communities are being left behind and left offline.”

In the US, the average fixed broadband speed is 134Mbps/75Mbps, according to network research firm Ookla. Rosenworcel’s proposal  included the concept of an even higher “national goal of 1Gbps/500Mbps for the future.”

“The future of business will increasingly be to reach consumers electronically,” said Jack Gold, principal analyst at research firm J. Gold Associates. "Having a uniform minimum speed across the country will be advantageous to businesses that can then reach a wide audience with their services."

Additionally, as 5G mobile networking rolls out across the world, and gets deployed in more remote locations, the prospect is growing for very high speed connections of 100Mbps and above. “So establishing a minimum might not be as hard to achieve as some expect,” Gold noted.

ookla 5g rollout graphic Ookla

At the end of 2021, Cisco surveyed 60,000 workers across 30 countries. The responses indicated that remote and hybrid work efforts were being undermined by poor broadband connectivity.

The survey results, published in February as part of Cisco's Broadband Index, showed that 75% of respondents believe the success of hybrid work hinges on the quality and availability of the internet.

Almost eight in of 10 workers (78%) said the reliability and quality of broadband connections is important. Dependence on high-performance internet access was also underlined by the fact that 84% of respondents actively use their broadband at home for four hours or more each day.

Nearly six in 10 respondents (58%) indicated they were unable to access critical services such as online medical appointments, online education, social care and utility services during lockdown, due to an unreliable broadband connection.

“Many teleworkers need more than a basic level of connectivity to support their livelihoods,” Cisco said in a statement. “To address the demands on their broadband connection, almost half of those surveyed (43%) are planning to upgrade their internet service in the next 12 months.”

Jason Blackwell, research director for Consumer Multiplay and SMB Services at IDC, said the latest call to boost broadband’s minimum requirements is aimed at minimizing the digital divide and forcing internet service providers to supply higher performance network to more locations.

“We still have a lot of locations in the US that are served only by a single provider, and often only by DSL, which may barely qualify as broadband even under today’s definition,” Blackwell said. “Bringing more robust broadband to these unserved and underserved areas will help to create connectivity to education and business opportunities, bringing economic gains. This will also enable more people to seek remote work opportunities and open up the employment pool for businesses to access the most qualified people wherever they may be located.”

One issue is that the level of speed is not uniform across the country. In many urban and suburban areas, users can already get at least 100Mbps or even 1Gigabit speeds — if they’re willing to pay for it. But in many more remote or lowe- income areas, less bandwidth is available because of underinvestments in connectivity in general.

“Some people still need to use DSL, as an example, which is pretty slow,” Gold said. “So, anything the government can do to create a minimum requirement that enables the user to be able to take advantage of all the new video and graphics features now common on the internet is about equal access.

“That certainly has an effect on the ability to have remote work enabled from any location and can help remote communities grow their employee base without having people move away, or letting people move to more remote and/or smaller cities/towns if they’d like without missing out on job opportunities,” Gold added.

Telemedicine, which is critical to underserved communities, also needs a reasonable amount of bandwidth to provide services.

To a large extent, the government is already financing some of the broadband infrastructure upgrades through taxes on broadband connections, Gold noted – a practice that’s been ongoing for years.

"The network enhancements are taking place at the internet service providers. Cable operators are upgrading to DOCSIS 3.1 and eventually to DOCSIS 4.0, or they are deploying fiber deeper into the network," Blackwell said. "Telcos are replacing copper networks for DSL with fiber to drive faster network speeds. The government is supporting many of these projects through a number of different programs like [Rural Digital Opportunity Fund] and the infrastructure bill."

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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