FCC chair: Speed standard of 25Mbps down, 3Mbps up isn’t good enough anymore

A United States map illustrated with streams of ones and zeroes to represent binary data and Internet transmissions.

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The Federal Communications Commission hasn’t raised its broadband speed standard since early 2015 when it adopted a metric of 25Mbps downloads and 3Mbps uploads.

That could finally change under Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, who is proposing a fixed broadband standard of 100Mbps downloads and 20Mbps uploads along with a goal of bringing affordable service at those speeds to all Americans. Under her plan, the FCC would evaluate broadband availability, speeds, and prices to determine whether to take regulatory actions to promote network deployment and competition.

Rosenworcel hasn’t revealed anything about how affordability will be measured. But in a proposed Notice of Inquiry that would start an evaluation of broadband deployment across the US, she included affordability as one of the aspects to be considered.

“In today’s world, everyone needs access to affordable, high-speed Internet, no exceptions,” Rosenworcel said in the announcement today. “It’s time to connect everyone, everywhere. Anything short of 100 percent is just not good enough.”

FCC required to study deployment

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act requires the FCC to determine whether broadband is being deployed “on a reasonable and timely basis” to all Americans. If the answer is no, the US law says the FCC must “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.”

The FCC’s previous Section 706 reports analyzed availability and included data on adoption but didn’t consider affordability.

In her announcement today, Rosenworcel said she “recently shared with her colleagues an updated Notice of Inquiry that would kick off the agency’s evaluation of the state of broadband across the country, as required by Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. Chairwoman Rosenworcel proposes that the Commission consider several crucial characteristics of broadband deployment, including affordability, adoption, availability, and equitable access, when determining whether broadband is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion to ‘all Americans.'”

Ajit Pai never raised speed standard

The FCC can use a negative finding under Section 706 to justify certain kinds of regulation, though the Section 706 power is not as extensive as the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. During the Obama administration, the FCC raised the speed standard it uses for Section 706 evaluations and determined that broadband isn’t reaching Americans fast enough, pointing in particular to lagging deployment in rural areas.

During the Trump years, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai kept the 25Mbps/3Mbps speed standard for home Internet service and concluded that providers were deploying fast broadband across the US on a reasonable and timely basis. Pai also deregulated the industry by eliminating net neutrality rules and reversing former Chairman Tom Wheeler’s decision to regulate ISPs as common carriers.

Rosenworcel has been FCC chairwoman since January 2021 but has never had a Democratic majority because the US Senate refused to confirm President Biden nominee Gigi Sohn. Biden’s replacement nominee, Democrat Anna Gomez, was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee two weeks ago, setting up a potential vote on the Senate floor that could finally break the FCC’s 2-2 partisan deadlock.

Gigabit for everyone a longer-term goal

Raising the broadband speed standard and creating a price metric for the next Section 706 evaluation may require Gomez’s support. Rosenworcel’s proposed Notice of Inquiry is pending a vote of the commission. Gomez’s vote would also be needed if Rosenworcel tries to reinstate Title II regulations over broadband.

The Notice of Inquiry’s proposal for a 100Mbps/20Mbps standard for Section 706 reviews “discusses a range of evidence supporting this standard, including the requirements for new networks funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” the announcement said. That’s a reference to the $42 billion broadband deployment fund created by Congress, which requires funded projects to provide speeds of at least 100Mbps downstream and 20Mbps upstream. Even that law, passed in 2021, still used the 25Mbps/3Mbps standard to determine whether an area is “unserved.”

Rosenworcel, an FCC member since 2012, began calling for a 100Mbps standard several years before she became the chair. Her new proposal would also set an additional, longer-term goal of gigabit speeds for all Americans.

“The Notice of Inquiry proposes to set a separate national goal of 1Gbps/500Mbps for the future,” Rosenworcel’s announcement said.

The FCC is already using 100Mbps/20Mbps as a standard in other contexts. The commission announced yesterday that one of its grant programs will require deployment of 100Mbps/20Mbps or faster service.