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Sad state of U.S. broadband as cable industry balks at FCC's 25Mbps definition

The FCC wants broadband to be defined as 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up, but cable and telco companies think current slow U.S. speeds are plenty fast enough.

FCC map of 25 mbps broadband deployment
Credit: FCC

Right now, the FCC defines broadband as 4Mbps down and 1Mbps up. Since FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called those speeds “yesterday’s broadband” and proposed that, in the FCC's Section 706 report, broadband should be defined as 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up, interested parties have been submitting comments on that proposal.

It’s no surprise that cable companies are among those parties interested in keeping the slow status quo. Ars Technica reported that the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) told the FCC that normal folks don’t need speeds of 25Mbps.

During President Obama’s State of the Union address, he promised “to protect a free and open internet,” but the U.S. needs much more than a promise as our connectivity speeds and costs are pathetic when compared to much of the rest of the world. For example, in Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Bucharest and Paris, people pay as little as $30 per month for speeds that allow an HD movie to be downloaded in about seven seconds, according to The Cost of Connectivity report published by the Open Technology Institute in October. The New York Times added that downloading the same HD movie takes 1.4 minutes and costs an average of about $300 a month for the fastest Internet speeds via fiber in the U.S.

As it stands right now, even if a town is unsatisfied with an ISP’s service or rates, there are legal obstacles and red tape in 19 states that could stop a town from offering its own public broadband. Do you think the Internet, like electricity or water, is a public utility that Americans “cannot live without”? Sen. Cory Booker just proposed a bill that would “let cities build and operate their own Internet service.”

If regulations were removed, more cities could become like Chattanooga, Tennessee, which has the “fastest Internet in the Western Hemisphere.” Chattanooga “offers public broadband plans at speeds of 1 gigabit per second for $70” per month. Salon reported, “Downloading a two-hour movie takes the average high-speed broadband customer in the U.S. half an hour. In Chattanooga, it takes 30 seconds.”

The FCC’s Wheeler believes 25Mbps is “table stakes” for modern communications, even though only 25% of American homes “have a choice of at least two providers at the 25Mbps/3Mbps threshold.” Ars pointed out that “changing the definition doesn't create any immediate impact other than lowering the percentage of Americans who have ‘broadband’ and shaming Internet providers that don't offer broadband speeds.” It could go a long way, however, toward admitting the U.S. has a serious problem when it comes to competitive broadband.

According to Akamai Technologies’ most current (third quarter) State of the Internet (pdf) report, the United States is ranked 11th globally with an average download speed of 10.5 Mbps. Although that’s up from the U.S. ranking of 31 in 2013, it’s far from keeping Americans up to speed with the demands for modern communications.

World's average Internet speeds in 2014 Akamai Technologies via Wikipedia

Netflix is of course on the opposite side of cable and ISPs’ broadband speed argument, but let’s look at the Netflix ISP speed index, which is based on streaming speeds of "53 million global members" who "view over 2 billion hours of TV shows and movies each month." The U.S. average speed is 2.97 Mbps, with Verizon FIOS having the highest speed of 3.36 Mbps, and Clearwire the slowest at 1.10 Mbps.

And whether the cable and telco companies like it or not, deny it or not, 4K is the future. Streaming it will require faster broadband speeds. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said “that one 4K stream from Netflix requires about 15 Mbps," but "consumers will also need additional headroom for things like video conferencing and home monitoring apps.” He added, “So, 25-megs is kind of baseline for the next five years as opposed to the past five years.”

Another measure of worldwide internet speeds comes from Ookla household download index, which represent a “rolling mean speed in Mbps over the past 30 days.” It lists the United States at 23 with an average speed of 32.33, coming in slightly above 24th-ranked Estonia’s 32.21. Since Ookla primarily gets its U.S. speeds from users who choose to visit the site Speedtest.net, it's likely skewed toward people who pay for higher speeds and are checking if they truly receive that service.

In the FCC’s map below, yellow areas are served and blue areas are not. But hey, NCTA doesn’t think regular Jane and Joe Doe’s need 25/3Mbps.

FCC map of 25 mbps broadband FCC

The potential bump up for the definition of broadband faces a vote at the FCC’s meeting on Thursday, Jan. 29.

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