The FCC voted on Thursday to dramatically boost the standard for broadband speeds to 25 megabits-per-second from just 4 Mbps, a move that could have big implications for policymaking and even its consideration of Comcast’s planned merger with Time Warner Cable.
The cable and telecommunications industry opposed the move, arguing that a standard of 10 Mbps is sufficient.
But FCC chairman Tom Wheeler singled out Internet service providers like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T and Verizon for lobbying for a lower standard, calling it sufficient to meet demand as streaming video services like Netflix and Amazon gain traction, while marketing to consumers the need for higher-speed connectivity in their home.
“Someone is telling us one thing and telling consumers another,” Wheeler said, adding that “our challenge is not to hide behind self-serving lobbying statements and recognize reality.”
The FCC’s 3-2 vote comes in response to a review of broadband speeds mandated by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which tasked the agency with promoting broadband deployment.
According to an FCC official, 17% of Americans don’t have access to the 25 Mbps download speeds and 3 Mbps for upload speeds. About 53% of Americans in rural areas don’t have access to to those speeds.
An FCC report found deployment of broadband failing to keep pace with the advances in the explosion of Internet-based voice, data and video.
What steps the FCC takes to spur deployment of the higher speeds remain to be seen. But Wheeler last year gave a speech in which he lamented the lack of competition for broadband Internet at the 25 Mbps speed. That triggered speculation that it could have an impact on the FCC’s review of the proposed merger of Comcast with Time Warner Cable, as it would mean that the combined company would command a larger share of the market for high-speed broadband. The FCC’s review is expected to conclude in March.
Commissioner Ajit Pai blasted the move to higher speeds, contending that it was an attempt to “seize new virtually limitless authority over the broadband marketplace.”
He said the commissioners were ignoring existing progress in boosting speeds, citing Google’s plans to expand the number of cities in which it is deploying its Google Fiber service.
“A thriving marketplace much have been found to have failed so the FCC can regulate it back to health,” he said. He was joined in his dissent by Commissioner Michael P. O’Rielly.
But Mignon Clyburn said that “what is crystal clear to me is that the broadband speeds of yesteryear are woefully inadequate today and beyond.”
“As Michelangelo famously said, ‘The greatest aim for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.'”
Update: The National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. said that they were “troubled” by the FCC’s decision, saying that it “ignores how millions of consumers currently access the Internet.
“Instead of an accurate assessment of America’s broadband marketplace and the needs and uses of consumers, the FCC action is industrial policy that is not faithful to Congress’s direction in Section 706 [of the Telecommunications Act] to assess the market, but a clear effort to justify and expand the bounds of the FCC’s own authority.”
If the merger is approved, Comcast’s share of the broadband market would be 37% at a threshold of 3 Mbps, and 56.8% at the 25 Mbps threshold, according to documents it filed with the FCC last month.
But the company has insisted that a higher-speed threshold would have “no material impact on competition” and that its share of the national market would rise only 1%.