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The FCC Quadrupled the Definition of Minimum Broadband Speeds. Here's Why It Matters

This is the first time the commission has increased the benchmark in nearly a decade.

Joe Supan Senior Writer
Joe Supan is a senior writer for CNET covering home technology, broadband, and moving. Prior to joining CNET, Joe led MyMove's moving coverage and reported on broadband policy, the digital divide, and privacy issues for the broadband marketplace Allconnect. He has been featured as a guest columnist on Broadband Breakfast, and his work has been referenced by the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, National Geographic, Yahoo! Finance and more.
Joe Supan
3 min read
FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel testifies to Congress

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called the update to its broadband standard "overdue."

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission on March 14 voted that the definition of broadband was outdated, increasing the threshold from 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload speed to 100/20Mbps.

This is the first time the agency has raised the speed requirement in nearly a decade, and it’s something FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has been pushing since at least 2015, when she argued, "I think our new threshold, frankly, should be 100 Mbps. I think anything short of that shortchanges our children, our future and our new digital economy."

2015 was the last time the FCC increased the benchmark, when it raised the minimum speeds required from 4/1Mbps to 25/3Mbps. At the time, 55 million Americans lacked access to 25/3Mbps speeds. 

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“This fix is overdue,” Rosenworcel said in a statement (PDF) released on March 14. “It aligns us with pandemic legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the work of our colleagues at other agencies. It also helps us better identify the extent to which low-income neighborhoods and rural communities are underserved.”

According to the FCC's most recent data (PDF) from December 2022, “45 million Americans lack access to both 100/20Mbps fixed service and 35/3Mbps mobile 5G-NR service.” 

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The new broadband definition could affect how state and federal funding is used to expand broadband services. Federal law requires that the FCC determine whether “advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion” and to “take immediate action to accelerate deployment.”  

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That “advanced telecommunications capability” is now four times faster than it was a day ago. With this higher standard, the FCC could take regulatory action to force internet providers to expand access to areas that are underserved.

The FCC voted 3-2 to adopt the new standard, with the two Republican commissioners dissenting. As recently as 2021, then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai stated that the 25/3Mbps standard “enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications.”

In an era of videoconferencing and smart homes, the current FCC decided that was no longer true. Zoom, for instance, requires upload speeds of 3Mbps or higher. The FCC’s definition considers the speeds delivered to your home. Because most devices are connected through Wi-Fi, the actual speeds they receive aren’t quite as fast. CNET’s extensive testing of Wi-Fi routers has found that Wi-Fi generally delivers about half the speed of a wired connection. In many cases, the difference is even more pronounced.

The FCC also set a long-term goal of increasing the benchmark to 1,000Mbps download and 500Mbps upload speed. That might be more speed than most people need right now, but it’s in line with an often-cited rule in the internet industry called Nielsen’s law, which states that a high-end internet user’s connection speed grows by roughly 50% each year, doubling every 21 months -- an observation that has held true since 1983. 

Right now, the average internet speed in the US is 242/31Mbps, compared to 198/23Mbps a year ago. It’s not hard to imagine a future in which virtual reality and smart home applications fuel massive increases in bandwidth needs. But for now, the FCC is ensuring everyone can at least make video calls.

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