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FCC boosts minimum speeds for broadband Internet connections

Internet providers can only advertise their connection as "broadband" if their service meets certain benchmarks.

Internet providers can only advertise their connection as "broadband" if their service meets certain benchmarks.

A Comcast gateway used to provide Internet service under the Xfinity brand. (Courtesy image)
A Comcast gateway used to provide Internet service under the Xfinity brand. Comcast is one of several Internet providers that meet the new federal broadband benchmarks for download and upload speeds. (Courtesy image)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday approved a new standard benchmark for broadband Internet connections.

The new standard calls for broadband Internet to support download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps), or three times faster than the previous benchmark. Connections would also need to support upload speeds of at least 20 Mbps to be considered broadband.

The vote on Thursday was the first time since 2015 that the federal agency has increased the benchmark for consumer broadband Internet connections. Back then, the FCC updated its definition to include services that provide download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of just 3 Mbps.

Internet companies are not required to offer speeds that meet the benchmark, but they cannot market their Internet plans as “broadband Internet” unless they meet those basic speed requirements (though they can market those plans as “high speed,” as evident by some of AT&T’s consumer campaigns that occurred immediately following the FCC’s last refresh of the broadband definition several years ago).

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The vote on Thursday makes good on a promise made by some FCC commissioners last November, when the proposal was first put forward for public comment. In a statement, FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel said the three-year coronavirus health pandemic proved the need to update the broadband definition, as some Americans found their Internet plans didn’t adequately accommodate their employers’ expectations for remote work.

“In order to get big things done, it is essential to set big goals,” Rosenworcel said last November. “That is why we are kicking off this inquiry to update our national broadband standard and also set a long-term goal for gigabit speeds.”

The benchmark speeds approved this week are just the first step toward connecting more Americans toward faster Internet service. The agency has set a lofty long-term goal to have all broadband service providers offer download speeds of 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) and upload speeds of 500 Mbps at some point in the future, though it wasn’t clear when the FCC might take on that initiative.

It probably won’t be for quite a while: Around 45 million Americans currently lack access to land-based Internet service that meets the minimum broadband speed thresholds as well as fixed wireless products that offer a minimum download speed of 35 Mbps, according to data provided by the agency.

Connecting those Americans to basic broadband Internet is now priority one for federal regulators, though it will have to work with broadband providers who have expressed concern over the FCC’s decision to impose new regulations on their services over the past few months.

Ahead of the FCC’s vote on the matter, officials with NCTA the Internet & Television Association (NCTA) said the agency’s attention to broadband benchmarks was “driven by an effort to bolster its regulatory authority more than any attempt to assess the pace of broadband deployment objectively.”

Broadband companies are concerned that updating the benchmarks might make them ineligible for certain federal grants that are earmarked specifically for broadband deployment in parts of the country. Most of those grants are only awarded to companies who are willing to provide service connections with upload and download speeds that meet or exceed those benchmarks.

“As internet providers work to connect every community to fast, affordable and reliable broadband service, the FCC can further speed this deployment by reducing regulatory barriers instead of imposing onerous new utility rules that will give the agency unprecedented power to micromanage the broadband marketplace,” a spokesperson for the NCTA said in a statement.

That said, some larger broadband companies took it upon themselves to increase consumer broadband speeds well ahead of the FCC’s vote on Thursday. Comcast recently announced some of its lower-cost Internet packages will have their download and upload speeds increased well beyond the new federal benchmark, and other companies like Charter’s Spectrum Internet and Altice-owned Optimum have done the same over the past few months.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 10 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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