Re-Defining Broadband

The FCC recently asked for comments about how broadband should be defined. There was a marked difference between those who put community needs first and those who put profits first. Companies like AT&T and Comcast were quick to argue that the FCC should not change the definition of broadband for reasons ranging from too much paperwork to the suggestion that rural people have no need for VoIP. The honest approach would have been for these companies to say they do not want a higher definition because it will change their business plans, likely requiring them to invest in better networks for communities, and that will hurt their short term profits.

On the other side were groups that argued for a more robust definition of broadband - something considerably less ambitious than our international peers but an improvement over the current FCC definition.
NATOA's comments [pdf] focused on issues like the need for measurements based on actual speeds rather than advertised and symmetrical connections (or at least "robust upstream speeds to facilitate interactivity" - which we think captures the importance of symmetric connections without getting lost in debates about absolutely symmetric connections).

The key metric for broadband should be the applications and needs that drive consumer requirements and choices. In this way, broadband should be understood as a connection that is sufficient in speed and capacity such that it does not limit a user’s required application.

Their magic broadband number is a reasonable and doable 10Mbps symmetric connection for residential and small businesses as well as a 1Gbps level for enterprise users. Importantly, they note that a single broadband connection supports far more than a single computer or use - these connections are shared, often among many wired and wireless devices.

Compare these comments to those of the NCTA [pdf] (lobbying organization for cable companies) that argue broadband is nothing more than an "always on" connection regardless of the speeds or user experience. This is how they justify maintaining the international laughingstock definition of 768kbps/200kbps.

It is this basic “always on” functionality that is most relevant for definitional purposes, more so than the presence or absence of the various detailed characteristics (e.g., latency, jitter, symmetry, mobility) mentioned in the Commission in the Notice.

If it is the "always on" functionality that is so important, why shouldn't the commission totally ignore speeds and consider people with 56kbps modems on dedicated phone lines to have broadband?

Eldo Telecom speculated on why the incumbents prefer the current, or other tepid definitions and what that says about them:

By advising the FCC to define broadband on such obsolete and arguably bogus terms, the providers are essentially telling the feds they aren't serious about the issue. It's a frivolous, throwaway position that summed up says "forget about any national broadband plan and leave us the hell alone."

It appears that these private service providers hold their product in low esteem and see little potential for it in the way that consumer and community-oriented groups see it is a transformational technology.

Reading the Free Press comments came as a welcome relief following the NCTA. They base their comments on existing legal definitions of broadband - one of which comes from the '96 Telecom Act:

The term ‘advanced telecommunications capability’ is defined, without regard to any transmission media or technology, as high-speed, switched, broadband telecommunications capability that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications using any technology

Much of the comments are, as they should be, inside baseball but make for interesting reading. These comments are the epitome of what the U.S. needs in order to remain competitive in the coming decades. They conclude that the minimum broadband speed should be 5Mbps symmetrical to each user during peak times (using the the somewhat standard approach of 95% availability of that speed during the measured period).