Sorry, your broadband Internet technically isn't broadband anymore

The FCC has raised the benchmark for broadband speed to 25 megabits per second, above the speed that many Americans receive with their home connection.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday rewrote the definition of high-speed Internet, and chances are, your connection isn't up to snuff.

The FCC commissioners voted 3 to 2 in support of the change. They are (left to right): Ajit Pai, Mignon Clyburn, Tom Wheeler (chairman), Jessica Rosenworcel, and Michael O'Rielly. FCC

The FCC, tasked with overseeing the rules that govern the Internet, raised the standard for broadband to 25 megabits per second from 4 Mbps, while raising the upload speed to 3 Mbps from 1 Mbps. The commissioners voted 3 to 2 in support of the change, though the dissenting Republican commissioners blasted the move as "overreaching." The change came as the FCC published its 2015 Broadband Progress Report, which is what Congress uses to assess the US broadband market.

The new definition effectively means that millions of Americans subscribing to Internet service that clocks in at less than 25 Mbps are no longer considered "broadband" subscribers. The average speed of service delivered in the US is 10 Mbps. Using this new threshold, the agency determined in its report that true broadband speeds are not being delivered in a timely fashion.

The agency's report found that 55 million Americans, or 17 percent of the population, lack access to advanced broadband services. The bulk of Americans who do not have access to such speeds are in rural areas. The report indicates that 53 percent of rural Americans lack broadband with download speeds of 25 Mbps. This is compared to 8 percent of Americans living in urban areas. The report also indicates that 20 percent of rural Americans don't even have access to the previous standard of 4 Mbps downloads.

A contentious decision

The move has once again pitted Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat appointed by President Barack Obama, against the two Republicans on the commission, Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, selected by the Republican-controlled Congress. Wheeler says the change in definition is an aspirational target that makes sense given the marketing claims of broadband providers that profess higher speeds are necessary for the ever increasing demands of consumers.

"Our challenge is not to hide behind self-serving lobbying statements, but to recognize reality," Wheeler said at the meeting. "And our challenge is to help make that reality available to all."

But the two dissenters on the FCC called the move an overreach of the agency's authority and argued that the new standard is arbitrary. Pai said that a better judge of what is considered broadband is to look at the services that consumers actually purchase.

"Seventy-one percent of consumers who can purchase fixed 25 Mbps service -- over 70 million households -- choose not to," he said.

The FCC noted in the Broadband Progress Report that the previous definition for broadband at 4 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads, adopted in 2010, was "inadequate."

Strong opinions on both sides

Consumer groups hailed the report's findings.

"The FCC's re-evaluation of the broadband marketplace is long overdue," Edyael Casaperalta, Internet rights fellow at Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "For too long, the FCC has gotten by with an outdated standard for broadband, and as a result its analysis of the marketplace grew increasingly antiquated."

The Communications Workers of America union also applauded the effort, arguing that the updated standard will create more jobs.

"Our nation's economic strength and social welfare -- as well as the future of good jobs in the telecom sector -- requires world leadership in the quality and capacity of our communications networks, and today's action by the FCC will move us forward toward regaining that leadership," the labor union said in a statement.

But conservative groups derided the move.

"The FCC has been playing political games with the '706 report' since 2010, when it suddenly declared deployment inadequate in order to justify its Net neutrality regulations," said Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that generally backs the efforts of broadband providers.

Foundation for Net neutrality battle?

The FCC's Republican commissioners believe the broadband vote is just a setup for the agency's intent to settle the Net neutrality fight with new regulations and to push local municipalities to go around state laws and build their own Internet networks. (Net neutrality is the principle of treating all Internet traffic the same.) They believe the stricter speed guidelines paint the broadband industry as less competitive, justifying the FCC's moves.

"The ultimate goal is to seize new, virtually limitless authority to regulate the broadband marketplace," Pai said during the agency's meeting Thursday. "A thriving marketplace must be found to have failed so that the agency can regulate it back to health."

At the heart of the Net neutrality debate is a provision in the new rules that would reclassify broadband as a Title II service under the Telecommunications Act. This reclassification would essentially allow the FCC to apply regulation originally established for the traditional telephone network to broadband infrastructure. While Net neutrality supporters hail the reclassification as a way to put the new rules on firmer legal ground, opponents including large Internet service providers and conservative Republicans say it would stifle investment in networks.

The FCC is also set to rule on two petitions that will override state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that prohibit municipalities from building or expanding broadband networks.

The agency will vote on both the Net neutrality proposal and the municipal broadband initiative at its February 26 meeting.

This story is part of a CNET special report looking at the challenges of Net neutrality, and what rules -- if any -- are needed to fuel innovation and protect US consumers.