It’s an exciting time in the broadband industry. If you think it’s interesting and busy now, just wait. The next five years or so will take it up a few notches, to say the least. In the midst of this historic time, I sometimes lose sight of the fact that the official broadband speed definition, at least according to the FCC, remains at 25/3 Mbps.
I’m not sure there is anything more absurd in the broadband industry than this outdated definition. Some would argue it was already outdated when it was established back in 2015, as a benchmark to measure national broadband progress. The FCC has consistently used the benchmark as a requirement for much of its legacy universal service program.
That meant carriers receiving funding through various FCC sponsored rural broadband programs had to deliver service of at least 25/3 Mbps. Although exceptions were made, with some programs allowing even slower 10/1 Mbps. The much-heralded RDOF program directs funding to areas that currently lack 25/3 Mbps coverage. Many argue this relegates much of rural America to second-class broadband service.
Beyond that debate, just about everyone in the industry knows this benchmark is absurd. And we didn’t need a pandemic to illustrate why it is absurd, although it certainly did do just that. Consider that OpenVault, which tracks broadband usage data across America with its OVBI data, reports that just under 18% of broadband customers subscribe to a tier of 100 Mbps or less. Gigabit subscribers, who get a speed at 40x the 25/3 Mbps definition, now number over 11%.
It’s not just that the majority of subscribers no longer see value in 25/3 Mbps speeds. Consider the latest funding programs that are not tied to the FCC. I’m talking CARES Act funding, USDA ReConnect funding, upcoming infrastructure funding – they have all moved on from the 25/3 Mbps FCC broadband speed definition. The newest round of ReConnect funding ($1.15 billion) will target areas in which 90% of the population lacks service at speeds of at least 100 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream. The funding will require service providers to deploy symmetrical 100 Mbps service.
While the final rules of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program (BEAD), a part of the $65 billion broadband infrastructure program, haven’t been published, we do know network operators receiving funding must deploy service at speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps.
It’s pretty clear that the industry has moved on from this outdated benchmark. There is already considerable debate regarding what broadband should be defined as. Maybe there will never be consensus on that. But clearly there’s consensus that 25/3 Mbps isn’t it.