The Broadband Definition Matters

In all the wrangling over how we should define broadband, I wanted to step back and remember why the definition is important.

Information networks have become essential for business, education, and entertainment. The broadband definition originally meant something faster than the dial-up speeds that topped out at 56kbps. In the late 90's, any connection faster than dial-up pretty much supported all Internet activities.

Over the years, some connections got faster while the slower connections were expanded to more people across the United States. In 2009, people who remain stuck with dial-up would be happy to get the slow speeds that first became available when DSL and cable modems debuted. On the other hand, many no longer consider those connections (often in the neighborhood of 200kbps to 768kbps for download speeds and even slower for upload speeds) to be capable of supporting many modern applications.

When the broadband definition supported all the applications users wanted to run, it was useful for subscribers. However, as the broadband definition has lagged farther and farther behind modern applications, it has become only useful to large companies like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest because they could brag that they were delivering "broadband" to most of their customers.

The result is a country that can claim x% of the population has access to broadband without that number really telling us anything. We do not know how many home users have access to connections that will support working from home or two-way video chat. We do not know how many businesses can access the speeds they need to be competitive in a real-time world.

When the FCC revises the broadband definition, it must make it more stringent for the following reasons:

  1. Subscribers need accurate information to make informed decisions. If they subscribe to "broadband," they should immediately know if it will actually support modern applications. This means incorporating common usage scenarios: multiple devices concurrently using a connection for browsing, e-mail, games, video-chats, media downloads, and large file uploads (online backup is becoming more popular and easy and people increasingly want to work effectively from home).
  2. Large companies, particularly telephone carriers, claim that there is no need for government intervention in broadband because almost everyone has access under the existing definition. (Why build highways when we have all these great dirt roads?) In order to standardize data and make good public policy, we need a more useful definition of broadband.
  3. Upstream speeds are all but ignored in the current definition. The average person is intimidated by computers and technology -- when they are subscribing to a connection that may be advertised as ULTRA FAST 8Mbps, they may still be getting a pathetic 300kbps upload that makes two-way video untenable. They will undoubtedly think the computer or application is the culprit rather than understanding what they are truly paying for in their "broadband" connection.

Increasingly bandwidth-hungry applications and an unchanging broadband definition have rendered "broadband" a meaningless term. It is time we restored meaning to it. Those of us lucky enough to have a choice between Internet service providers should easily be able to understand the differences between advertised connections and what we really get - no more "up to" rates that we never experience. Companies must not be allowed to call their product "broadband" while hiding pathetically slow upload speeds in fine print. Any caps on monthly usage must be clearly defined.

This is why the broadband definition matters, and why it must be improved.

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