More bandwidth! The FCC defines broadband right at last

With the new classification of broadband as 25Mbps down, 3Mbps up, the heart of FCC chairman Tom Wheeler also seems six times bigger

Credit: iStockphoto

If you haven’t heard, the FCC has officially defined broadband Internet service as 25Mbps down, 3Mbps up. This is more than six times the previous standard of 4Mbps down and represents a major shift in how the Internet is regarded by the U.S. government.

Frankly, the 3Mbps upstream minimum is still too low, but the 25Mbps downstream is adequate. This means that suddenly, many Americans no longer have broadband Internet access — and realistically, they haven’t in any way but name for many years now.

It was somewhat amusing to witness the entrenched ISPs talk out of both sides of their mouths on this issue. On the one hand, they swore up and down that 4Mbps was more than enough to stream HD content, while at the same time advertised 25Mbps and faster plans as “HD streaming capable,” which as we all know is the real truth.

For years we have heard the big ISPs say that consumers don’t want faster Internet access. Whatever the upper number happened to be, whether 5Mbps, 10Mbps, or 25Mbps, it was always more than anyone wanted or needed. It should come as no surprise that the big ISPs will say and do anything to remain on their cartel-like perch, offering the bare minimum of service for top-shelf prices and complaining about how any form of regulation would be ruinous to their ample bottom lines. Remember, these are the same companies that are continuing to charge higher and higher fees for decade-old cable boxes and modems with impunity.

All the while, an impertinent little burr of reality called Google Fiber has been messing with their Oliver Twist dialog. The only places you see services growing and prices stabilizing or dropping is where Google has either begun a rollout or threatened to do so. A few years ago, I opined that the mere existence of Google Fiber might be enough to cause ripples through the complacent ISP industry — enough to slow or even reverse the unconscionable trend toward metering, data caps, and tiered services, as well as light a fire under the ISPs' stagnant coverage and services. It seems that might actually be coming to pass.

Not that Google’s endeavor to upend a fat, dumb, and happy industry and implement real change is necessarily rooted in altruism. Google needs customers -- customers with fast and reliable Internet access. Google saw that if Internet access in the United States was to be portioned out like bread and water in a medieval prison, its own bottom line would suffer. Naturally, the company decided to do something about it. This, incidentally, is the same reason Google is backing Elon Musk’s plan to outfit the globe with 4,000 satellites to distribute the Internet to everyone.

But beyond that, this FCC ruling means that roughly 20 percent of U.S. households are not able to access broadband Internet. Further, an additional 55 percent of U.S. households have only a single option for broadband Internet.

This heavily reinforces the argument in favor of reclassification of ISPs as Title II common carriers, and it provides further evidence that the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger would be disastrous. In one fell swoop, the FCC has caught up with 2010 bandwidth needs (which, while still not current, is better than languishing back in 2005), and it has set the stage for what is easily one of the most important decisions the FCC has ever made: reclassification of ISPs as Title II common carriers.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is 68 years old, an age when one might reflect on one's life and legacy. It came as a welcome surprise that he railed against the GOP's abhorrent "Net neutrality" bill last Thursday, warning (righteously) that it jeopardized "the most powerful network in the history of mankind." That doesn't sound like the Tom Wheeler that had to clarify that he's "not a dingo."

All of this is quite promising, but the big enchilada, the Title II vote, will determine whether Wheeler might become that hero after all.

Oh, and make sure you don't miss the comment from disappointed FCC commissioner Ajit Pai after this vote: “Some people believe that we are on a path to interplanetary teleportation. Should we include the estimated bandwidth for that as well?” This, folks, is one of the five people currently deciding on the future of the Internet in the United States. To call that a disturbing notion is an understatement.

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