Feds increase standard for Web speed

Broadband Internet just got a lot faster — at least as far as the government is concerned.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday raised the bar for what it considers to be high-speed broadband Internet service.

ADVERTISEMENT

While the move is largely symbolic, the 3-2 vote to change the definition of broadband Internet could presage heightened expectations for companies on the part of regulators, and contribute to agency leaders’ concerns about the lack of competition in the U.S. market for Internet service.

“Our challenge is not to hide behind self-serving lobbying statements but to recognize reality, and our challenge is to help make that reality available for all,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

The FCC’s vote on Thursday would increase its benchmark speed for broadband Internet from 4 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads to 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.

FCC Democrats who supported the move said that it would ensure that the agency has a firm understanding of the actual state of broadband in America.

According to the FCC, nearly one-fifth of the country does not have access to broadband service at 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. The situation is even worse for rural Americans, 53 percent of whom lack speeds at the FCC’s new definition, according to the agency.

While lower speeds may have been effective in the earlier days of the Web, backers of the move said that modern families in the U.S. can easily use more than a half-dozen devices that connect to the Internet, including tablets, smartphones and gaming systems in addition to traditional computers. If multiple people are getting online to stream video, audio or play games at the same time, that can easily tie up the lines at lower Internet speeds.

“The facts speak for themselves and consumers are making a decision and sending us a message,” said Wheeler, who noted that subscriptions of Internet speeds at the new levels have quadrupled in the last three years.

Republicans, meanwhile, opposed the move as a cynical gesture to increase the FCC’s power.  

Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly chided the FCC for using “intentionally flawed analysis” to make “a mockery of a process that is supposed to provide an honest assessment of broadband deployment in the Untied States.”

The ultimate goal, added fellow GOP Commissioner Ajit Pai, is for the FCC "to seize new, virtually limitless authority to regulate the broadband marketplace.”

Raising the FCC’s internal bar would allow the agency to more critically assess the state of competition in the market. While many consumers have a number of options for slower Internet access, their choices dwindle as the speeds go up.

That could be bad news for Comcast’s proposed $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable, which many critics say would further reduce market competition and leave consumers out to dry. It also may signal forthcoming action from the FCC on a pair of requests to preempt state laws letting local cities and towns build out their own government-run broadband Internet services — a move that President Obama has urged the commission to take and which will come up for a vote at the FCC's next meeting in February.