internet speed test results

One of the most debated issues in the broadband industry has always been the very essence of broadband itself – a consistent broadband speed definition. A bipartisan group of Senators are weighing in on the debate with a new proposal.

In a letter addressed to several administration officials including the Secretary of Agriculture and the Chair of the FCC, Sen Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen Angus King (I-ME), Sen Rob Portman (R-OH), and Sen Joe Manchin (D-WV) are calling on the Biden administration to create a broadband definition of symmetrical 100 Mbps.

“Unfortunately, the FCC data continually overestimates broadband connectivity due to outdated mapping and poor data collection methods,“ the Senators write. “We now have multiple definitions across federal agencies for what constitutes an area as served with broadband, resulting in a patchwork without one consistent standard for broadband.”

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They are correct with the patchwork reference. The “official” FCC broadband definition is a service that delivers 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream (25/3). But there are exceptions to that definition, with 10/1 Mbps service allowed through certain FCC and USDA funding programs.

Of course, neither of those are adequate in the real world. According to the Ookla Speedtest Global Index, the U.S. average broadband speed is 179 Mbps downstream and 65 Mbps upstream (as of January 2021). You will find other data with different speeds, but regardless, they’re virtually all higher than the current 25/3 Mbps broadband definition.

Speedtest Global Index Results, January 2020 - January 2021, Broadband speed definition
Source: Speedtest Global Index

What’s at stake is billions in federal broadband funding, which is in some ways pegged to these lower broadband speed definitions. The FCC is trying to address the downstream portion of this with some of its recent programs, but upstream is still an issue.

Close to 100% of the recent RDOF winning bids have committed to deploying speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps. There is of course swirling controversy regarding whether that will actually happen.

“We should also insist that new networks supported with federal funds meet this higher standard, with limited exceptions for truly hard-to-reach locations. For years, we have seen billions in taxpayer dollars subsidize network deployments that are outdated as soon as they are complete, lacking in capacity and failing to replace inadequate broadband infrastructure,” the letter states.

While the Senators are pushing for the higher speed, they are also acknowledging a loophole. “Our goal for new deployment should be symmetrical speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps), allowing for limited variation when dictated by geography, topography, or unreasonable cost.”

I would argue that the “limited variation when dictated by geography, topography, or unreasonable cost,” is the loophole that is very subjective and is how the FCC justifies the current lower speed broadband definition.

There will always be high-cost areas and difficult to reach geographies. How you fit those realities into a national definition of acceptable broadband speed is tricky. And who defines what is actually a high cost or difficult to reach area? Herein lies the problem.

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