Is the Federal Government's Defined Speed for Broadband Too Slow?

Advocates of higher minimum broadband speeds say the National Broadband Plan may not be fast enough for citizens.

by / January 8, 2010

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama endorsed a federally mandated National Broadband Plan to promote Internet connectivity. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) directed the FCC to establish a National Broadband Plan. The federal government is now poised to follow through on that idea, but it may prove to be a hollow victory for those who've long advocated for higher minimum broadband speeds.

Broadband advocates and some vendors consider standards tied to the $7.2 billion for broadband projects in ARRA indicators of what will come from an overall broadband strategy. And some don't like what they see. The federal government set 768 kilobits per second (Kbps) for downloading and 200 Kbps for uploading as minimum acceptable speeds to qualify for broadband stimulus grants.

But critics say those speeds hardly equate to true broadband.

"It's almost impossible to participate in a real-time video conference [at that speed]. It's almost impossible to share video files, music files, pictures -- any large quantity of data with a time-sensitive nature to it. It's almost impossible to do that because it's barely four times the speed of dial-up," said S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, a consumer group advocating for higher speeds within the National Broadband Plan, which the FCC plans to release February.

"Certainly on the downstream side, you might be able to stream YouTube videos, but you're going to have a lot of stuttering and buffering," Turner added. "On the upstream side, it's barely enough to engage in a two-way voice over Internet phone call."

Some critics say the federal government's standard, as written, would cement America's low ranking among national average broadband speeds. Turner contends that this would stunt the nation's economy, which increasingly depends on fast Internet connections. The U.S. ranked 19th in average advertised broadband speeds compared to other countries in a 2008 study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group headquartered in France that helps governments tackle economic, social and governance challenges of a global economy.

Not all experts view the OECD's study as cause for alarm. Gartner Research Vice President Alex Winogradoff said U.S. population centers have broadband speeds comparable to other nations. The large rural population in the United States, however, makes the country seem further behind the broadband curve than it really is.

And major broadband providers, like Comcast and AT&T, say many areas of the country lack sufficient demand to make higher speeds financially sustainable. In July 2009, AT&T argued in a letter to the FCC that the agency should create one lower-speed standard for residential users and a higher one for businesses.

Existing providers and some analysts contend that users don't need access to the newest broadband applications to be legitimately connected. AT&T claimed in its letter to the FCC that, for rural residential users, the ability to send e-mails and instant messages and do basic Web browsing should drive national broadband goals.

Unavoidable Limitations

If the national plan holds to the minimum speeds required by the stimulus, old-style copper lines will likely be used to provide DSL connections in regions that are now classified as unserved, said Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute. He wants subsidies to fund more advanced technology. "We're preserving the current infrastructure," Shark said. "What new is going to be built, other than taking copper lines and putting in a few little switches?"

Gartner's Winogradoff agrees that the stimulus's definition for minimum speed is dubious, but said it is likely to be the most realistic option for rural areas. He believes that convincing a vendor to partner on fiber deployments in rural areas would be financially impossible. "There is no way you could push fiber that deep anywhere," he said.

Winogradoff explained that a fiber network must reach back to an area's broader Internet infrastructure. Wherever fiber is extended from the broader Internet infrastructure, enough consumers must buy services over it to maintain that fiber extension. Many rural areas don't have enough consumers to support such an extension.

Shark acknowledged that commercial providers can't make a business case for some of the upgrades. But he contends government should take the lead in bringing true high-speed connectivity to rural America.

"The government has more of a responsibility to take the leadership role because Verizon and AT&T can't, and they shouldn't be expected to. Neither should Comcast, [which] can't," Shark said. "But the federal government is the one taking your money and my money -- $7 billion [in stimulus money] to build infrastructure. I don't understand why we should be satisfied with accepting status quo."

Comments from AT&T to the FCC suggest the current speed requirement would improve the status quo in communities accustomed to even slower speeds. "For Americans who today have no terrestrial broadband service at all, the pressing concern is not the ability to engage in real-time, two-way gaming, but obtaining meaningful access to the Internet's resources and to reliable e-mail communications and other basic tools that most of the country has come to expect as a given," AT&T's letter said.

Low Expectations

Right now, it isn't clear how much federal assistance beyond the stimulus will go toward the national plan. But another concern is that a minimum speed requirement that's too low could exclude communities from federal assistance that already have broadband that's only slightly faster than the minimum. According to Shark, eligibility requirements for ARRA funds for broadband projects already have that exclusion.

"They set the bar so low it was impossible for [many governments] to say they had an 'unserved' area because, under the conditions, everything was pretty much served," Shark said. "It's just a step above dial-up in certain ways."

That snag left some observers wondering if the federal government should raise the speed standard to ensure that communities with average broadband are included in the national plan. But others are unsure the federal government could afford to subsidize that many projects.

Free Press contends that changing telecommunications regulations is more viable than raising the minimum speed. Turner blames slow connection speeds on a lack of competition among ISPs. He wants the FCC to enforce language in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that compels incumbent ISPs to share their infrastructure with competitors.

"Incumbent carriers and cable companies aren't going to like a lot of this, but they have to recognize that we live in a duopoly marketplace, and that's just not good enough," Turner said. "There is going to have to be some type of policy aimed at encouraging more competition."

Turner said the current setup creates a disincentive for providers to build new infrastructure. "They're essentially just taking the profit they have on the deployment they did a decade ago and aren't deploying the capital you would see in a competitive industry," he said.

Aggressive regulations aimed at enforcing competition were the rule in much of Eastern Europe and Japan, Turner said. "It has been remarkably successful policy that's really helped grow the broadband market and led to lower prices and much faster pace of different higher-quality services."


Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.