FCC Moves Broadband Goalpost & It’s Impact On Alaska’s Connectivity

The FCC’s current definition of broadband internet is 25mbps download, 3mbps upload.  This standard was originally set in 2015.

Since that time, there has been interest in raising that standard.  The FCC is now considering changing it again.  To what, exactly, is still to be determined.  But, it’s likely to be somewhere in the 100mbps down, 20mbps up range.

This post will explore what that means for Alaska’s connectivity.

The FCC’s Inability To Regulate Internet Speed

It’s important to acknowledge that the FCC has literally zero power in regulating the speed of the internet and the connections that carriers offer.

Perhaps controversially, they’ve taken a slightly different tact on their efforts to use their regulatory powers.

Since they can’t directly influence things or regulate the connections carriers offer, they’ve instead started trying to corner the use of the term “broadband” to mean a specific thing.

This practice has somewhat a lengthy history, with the following markers throughout the last few decades:

  • 1996:  200kbps/200kbps
  • 2010:  4mbps/1mbps
  • 2015:  25mbps/3mbps

As mentioned above, they’ve currently determined that “broadband” means access to a minimum of 25mbps/2mbps service to have the household be considered as “served” by broadband internet.

So, for an internet provider to claim they provide “broadband,” they have to meet that minimum standard.

To be clear, internet providers can still offer products like “internet access” or “internet connectivity” at any speed lower than those standards.  They just can’t call it broadband internet.

In A Way, That Sort Of Works

While a carrier can technically offer whatever speeds and feeds they want, this minimum definition does sort of establish a target for carriers to try and hit.

It likely works more due to public perception than any kind of actual regulatory power.

If customers understand that the minimum for “broadband internet” is a certain speed, that’s generally a minimum of what they’ll expect carriers to deliver.

If a carrier peddles a product that is woefully in defiance of those standards, there’s a higher than average chance that customer will have a negative opinion of that product.

But, as many of you probably know, just because you’re advertised a certain internet speed, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually get that speed.

Moving The Standard Forward

For the last couple years, the FCC has mulled over a proposal of moving that standard up again.  Recently, the FCC has put together an official proposal for exactly that.

The general figures that have been considered are moving the broadband standard to 100mbps/20mbps.

It’s quite likely this will result in the standard being moved up again.

If you ask me, I’d completely agree with the FCC’s opinion that it’s time to re-evaluate that definition of broadband.  I might even argue that the 25/3 standard was inadequate when it was adopted in 2015!

25mbps is definitely on the low-end of what’s “acceptable internet” these days.  While these speeds do work well for many people, it’s starting to feel long in the tooth.

Many internet services will fully take advantage of greater speeds these days.  With 4K video being the norm on services like YouTube, 25mbps is just barely adequate to provide that for one person.

With many households being comprised of two, three, four or even more people, you can see how that minimum standard is no longer able to meet the technical needs of modern households.

The Problems With Moving Forward

There are valid arguments for leaving the current standard alone.

For years now, carriers have been upgrading their equipment to try and meet those minimum standards.  Billions of dollars, with a lot of it being public money, have been invested in trying to hit that standard.

We’re seeing exactly this happen here in Alaska.  For example, ACS is literally working on a project in my backyard at this very moment to bring “fiber to the node” to improve their DSL offerings up to 50mbps.

Should the technical standard be moved, all this money will literally be rendered obsolete overnight.

The other big problem will be especially for traditional telcos offering DSL, like Alaska Communications.  The technology to meet 100/20 simply doesn’t technically exist right now.

Telcos that didn’t learn their lessons the first time when the FCC invalidated their internet offerings overnight get no sympathies from me.  There will always be limitations in trying to make 50+ year old technology relevant in 2023 and beyond.

Technically, there is a DSL technology called G.Fast that can meet the soon-to-be required speeds.  However, this requires yet another major reconfiguration and redesign of the telco’s fiber networks that are unlikely to happen soon in Alaska.  It would be a far better and more future proof investment to bite the bullet and start working towards fiber to the home.

Nonetheless, we can’t just put our heads in the sand and pretend that the old standard is good enough forever.  Eventually, it will need to be updated.  Preferably before newer technologies demand it.

So, this change of definition will mean that tens of thousands of Alaskan’s will again be thrown on the other side of the digital divide.

But, let’s not kid ourselves.  Even if the standard doesn’t change, they’re still on the other side of the digital divide, whether the FCC recognizes it or not.

And, once the definition changes again, Alaska will be behind the curve for decades to come.

No Longer Accepting “It’s Expensive” As A Reason To Not Do It!

All major carriers are pretty much in opposition to the FCC re-defining the broadband definition.  This is especially true of traditional telcos that can only offer inadequate DSL.

They are well aware of the fact that the changes will invalidate their “broadband” offerings overnight.  They are also aware of the fact that it’ll mean yet another redesign.

But, I’m no longer accepting “it’s expensive” as a reason for the development not to occur.

Alaskan carriers seem to forget that we’re paying literally two or three times the cost of internet access that is seen in lower-48 locations.

It’s not uncommon for the Alaskan’s internet bill to be $100 to $200 a month.  Compare that to $30-$50 fiber to the home some users are seeing in the lower 48!

Second, literally billions of dollars of public, Federal money (our tax dollars) are being injected into these carriers for their buildouts.

Pretty much every major internet expansion that Alaska has seen in the last 20 years has been at the expense of the American people!

It’s not even the carrier’s money and yet they get the recurring revenue!

Maybe Alaska Needs To Think Differently To Solve Its Problems

I’m not much one for “big government” and centralized solutions to solve Alaska’s internet access problems.

I very much believe that the previous investments into solving the digital divide were inadequate and many of those investments were wasteful and haven’t achieved sufficient results.

When I think back to the early days of the internet, the “modem era” as it were, internet access proliferated.  Many “mom and pop” businesses were able to provide internet access, as were larger nationwide companies.

This existed because of the regulated nature of the network, the telecom (phone) network.  Almost everyone had access to phones because it was required, ubiquitous technology.

Internet networks have never been regulated at that same scale, possibly for good reasons.

However, there might be some lessons that could be learned from that era?

So long as the majority of actual network expansion is being funded by federal tax payer dollars, maybe it’s time to consider “regulated media” (i.e. fiber, copper) and “unregulated ISP” model?

Such a model has theoretical benefits:

  • Opens up room for competition as it would no longer be cost prohibitive for new carriers to build out infrastructure.
  • Multiple companies could build infrastructure and lease it to each other to provide services.
  • Non-competitive networks would no longer be incentivized by “this is what we have to work with.”
  • Provides carriers additional mechanisms for profit while also focusing on the end customer’s experience.
  • More companies working towards common infrastructure and improved networks
  • Infrastructure and delivery could be standardized across mainstream, modern technologies like fiber optics.

While I know this model isn’t perfect, it’s at least a lot more efficient and allows for a more competitive atmosphere than the current duopoly that we currently have.

What I do know is that the models we’ve been using in the past aren’t working all that well.  Despite billions spent on Alaska’s connectivity, we’re still in last place for broadband internet delivery.

When the FCC changes the definition of broadband, much of Alaska is going to be on the other side of the digital divide for decades to come.

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