The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has redefined advanced broadband as having 25Mbps download speeds, up from 4Mbps, giving the agency new authority to pass rules to encourage deployment across the country.
The FCC, in a 3-2 party-line vote Thursday, also determined that this newly-defined advanced broadband wasn't being rolled out in a timely manner across the U.S. The agency released a notice of inquiry asking how it can accelerate broadband deployment, but didn't offer concrete plans on how it will proceed.
The agency redefined advanced broadband over the objections of its two Republican commissioners and large broadband providers. Comcast, AT&T and Verizon Communications have all filed comments in recent months questioning the need for the commission to change its broadband definition from 4Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream to 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up.
Broadband providers have argued that the FCC should focus instead on removing regulations that inhibit private investment instead of defining broadband speeds and seeking new authority to move toward those speeds. "The commission should conclude that broadband is being deployed throughout the United States in a reasonable and timely fashion," Verizon's lawyers wrote in September. "Broadband providers have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in deploying next-generation broadband networks."
The commission's vote has widespread implications for future broadband policy including the speed of broadband for deployment subsidies under the agency's Universal Service Fund. However, the commission voted just last month to subsidize deployment of 10Mbps broadband in parts of the U.S.
The new definition could also figure into the agency's upcoming net neutrality vote, although it's unclear how the commission would connect the two issues. The 1996 Telecommunications Act, in its Section 706, authorizes the commission to take immediate steps to encourage broadband deployment if the agency finds it isn't being rolled out in a timely way, and a U.S. appeals court has pointed to the same section of the law as authority for the commission to pass net neutrality rules.
The commission's Democrats defended the new definition of advanced broadband. With U.S. households continuing to add connected devices, the demand for high-speed broadband "adds up fast," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. While many broadband providers urged the commission to keep its old definition of advanced broadband speeds, they tell customers they need to buy speeds of 25Mbps or more for common household use, Wheeler said.
"Somebody is telling us one thing and telling customers another," he said.
Without faster broadband, new wearables and other devices are "simply gadgets and flashy, expensive toys for us to gaze at, marvel and wonder," added Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.
An FCC report found that 55 million U.S. residents -- 17 percent of the population -- have access to 25 Mbps broadband. About 53 percent of residents in rural areas don't have access to those speeds, the report said. The gap in availability of 25 Mbps broadband closed by just 3 percent from 2012 to 2013, the FCC said.
The commission's two Republicans blasted the FCC report and new definition of broadband. More than 70 percent of U.S. residents who have access to 25Mbps service choose not to pay for it, said Commissioner Ajit Pai. The definition excludes mobile 4G service from being defined as broadband, he noted.
A home broadband connection of 10Mbps supports three video streams, plus other Web use, at the same time, Pai said. "For some time now, under this administration, grounding the new benchmark for broadband in reality hasn't been the point," he added. "No, the ultimate goal is to seize new, virtually limitless authority to regulate the broadband marketplace."
If the FCC continues to redefine broadband, it will never be able to conclude broadband providers are deploying it in a timely way, the commission's Republicans said. "At some point, the agency has to take yes for an answer when it comes to broadband deployment," Pai said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is email@example.com.