The Federal Communications Commission broadband standard that was implemented under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler in 2015 and never updated by Ajit Pai is now “likely too slow,” according to a government report issued last week.
The Wheeler-led FCC in January 2015 updated the agency’s broadband standard from 4Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream to 25Mbps downloads/3Mbps uploads. The increase was opposed by broadband-industry lobbyists and Republicans, including Ajit Pai, who was then a commissioner and later served as FCC chairman throughout the Trump administration.
Pai never updated the 25Mbps/3Mbps standard in his four years as chair. In his last annual broadband-deployment report issued in January 2021, Pai concluded that “fixed services with speeds of 25/3Mbps continue to meet the statutory definition of advanced telecommunications capability.”
Consumer advocates have frequently called the 25Mbps/3Mbps outdated, and the nonpartisan US Government Accountability Office (GAO) agreed in a report based on a review of research and interviews with small businesses.
“Much of the literature GAO reviewed suggests that FCC’s current broadband minimum benchmark speeds—25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloading and 3Mbps for uploading—are likely too slow to meet many small business speed needs,” the GAO said in a report issued Thursday.
The GAO report is focused on small businesses and said that FCC officials acknowledged that “they are not aware of any small business requirements that have been taken into consideration in determining the minimum speed benchmark.” The GAO urged the FCC to analyze the broadband needs of small businesses, including by “solicit[ing] stakeholder input,” and to incorporate the results into its next broadband benchmark. The “FCC agreed with this recommendation,” the GAO said.
The GAO pointed to a 2019 USDA report on rural broadband and agriculture, saying it found that “as technology advances and volumes of data needed to manage agriculture production grow, speeds in excess of 25/3Mbps with more equal download and upload speeds will likely be necessary.” The GAO also said that “in 2017, BroadbandUSA—a National Telecommunications and Information Administration program—published a fact sheet stating that small businesses need a minimum of 50Mbps speeds in order to conduct tasks such as managing inventory, operating point-of-sale terminals, and coordinating shipping.”
“Eleven of the twelve small business owners we interviewed also highlighted advanced uses of broadband, and two gave examples of using higher broadband speeds,” the GAO wrote. “One business owner we spoke to in California provides IT services to other small businesses, and he advises clients to get a 100/25Mbps connection, at minimum.”
Senators called for 100/100 benchmark
The FCC’s 25Mbps/3Mbps definition was developed with the needs of home-Internet users in mind and is used to analyze how many Americans have or lack access to high-speed broadband service. It has also been used to determine which parts of the country should get government funding for network deployment and to set the floor for speeds that ISPs are required to provide in exchange for public subsidies. Pai’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund set 25Mbps/3Mbps as the minimum, though it used several speed tiers and ended up allotting nearly all the money to ISPs that pledged speeds of at least 100Mbps/20Mbps.
Four US senators—including one Republican—recently called on the FCC and other Biden administration agencies to use a standard of 100Mbps both upstream and downstream for new deployments. The GAO didn’t recommend a specific standard, but it wrote in the full report’s conclusion that the current one is likely not fast enough, particularly on the upload side.
“Millions of small business owners continue to lack access to broadband that meets their needs. FCC’s minimum speed benchmark of 25/3Mbps is likely not fast enough to meet the needs of many small businesses, particularly with regard to upload speeds,” the GAO wrote.
Speed standards have been a big topic lately as the Biden administration and Congress discuss how to spend $65 billion on broadband deployment. A symmetrical 100Mbps standard like the one proposed by the four senators would likely ensure that government-subsidized networks are built with fiber instead of technologies that have slower uploads, like cable and fixed wireless. Congress can set its own speed standards for funding purposes, so it doesn’t necessarily have to use the FCC’s current 25Mbps/3Mbps benchmark.
Acting FCC chair said 25/3 standard is outdated
Boosting the speed standard would result in a higher number of Americans being classified as “unserved” in government data. FCC acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has been supporting an upgrade to the agency’s broadband-speed standard for years. “With so many of our nation’s providers rolling out gigabit service, it’s time for the FCC to adjust its baseline upward, too,” she said last year, calling for a 100Mbps download standard and an upload standard that’s higher than 3Mbps.
This year, after Pai stuck with the 25Mbps/3Mbps standard, Rosenworcel said it “confounds logic” that the FCC issued a “report that says that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” She said the pandemic has made it “painfully clear there are too many people in the United States who lack access to broadband,” with “people sitting in parking lots using free Wi-Fi signals because they have no other way to get online” and “students who fall in the homework gap because the lack the high-speed service they need to participate in remote learning.”
FCC data, which is based on speeds that ISPs say they offer in each census block, shows much lower deployment rates in higher speed tiers, especially in rural areas. “According to FCC’s 2021 Broadband Deployment Report, only about 67 percent of rural Americans have access to 100/10Mbps speeds, compared to about 83 percent at the current 25/3Mbps,” the GAO report noted.
FCC advisory groups urged higher speeds
Despite Pai maintaining the 25Mbps/3Mbps standard, the FCC itself formed advisory groups that found higher speeds are likely necessary, the GAO wrote. One of those reports recommended higher upload speeds in particular because of needs in agriculture:
Recently, two FCC-commissioned advisory groups have suggested that higher speeds may be necessary. A December 2020 report issued by the FCC Broadband Deployment Advisory Council encouraged FCC to continue to update the broadband speed benchmark to account for higher capacity download and upload speeds sufficient to support current and future demand… An October 2020 interim working group report from the FCC Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force, looking at the use of broadband in agriculture, which can include small farms, also recommended that the minimum benchmark be increased from 25/3Mbps. This report stated there should be a particular focus on increasing upload speeds to accommodate the large amounts of data collected and analyzed for agriculture management. FCC officials stated that they would review and determine whether to follow the report’s recommendations.
Rosenworcel is leading the FCC without a majority because Biden hasn’t nominated a new commissioner to break the 2-2 deadlock between Democrats and Republicans. Biden’s delay, coupled with the Senate confirmation process that often takes months after a nomination is announced publicly, means that the FCC likely won’t tackle big agenda items like restoring net neutrality rules in 2021.
Raising broadband speed standards has also generally required a partisan battle. But with the most recent FCC deployment report having been released in January 2021, the FCC may wait until early 2022 to issue a new report and raise the 25Mbps/3Mbps standard. By then, the FCC presumably will have a Democratic majority.