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Broadband's Impact

Broadband Breakfast Panelists Wrestle With the Speed Definition of High-Speed Broadband

Tim White

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March 18, 2021 – Should the Federal Communications Commission update its definition of high-speed broadband to account for overall faster connections? Industry experts at the Broadband Breakfast Live Wednesday event responded: “It’s complicated.”

For BroadbandNow’s Tyler Cooper, the simple answer was yes. “It changed in 2010, it changed in 2015, its 2021. Technology is changing, I think the definition should change as well,” he said. But what that change should be is more complicated and depends on different factors, he explained.

When the Telecommunications Act passed in 1996, broadband was defined as a connection speed of at least 200 kilobits per second (Kbps), and it was most recently updated in 2015 to a minimum 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload to define a high-speed internet connection.

It’s important to separate how we talk about served and unserved areas, said Christina Mason, vice president of government affairs at the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association.

Different areas require different solutions

“I think the problem that’s happening in Washington, DC, is that we are conflating a lot of different problems, and trying to solve it with one silver bullet solution,” she said. There is a difference between living an area with competitive broadband options and an area with limited service, and those two areas need different solutions, she said.

Some locations may not have access to fiber, for example, or limited competitive options, so the conversation should be tech-neutral to allow all types of broadband providers to open up access to unserved areas, she said.

Someone sitting in an office in Washington, D.C., shouldn’t define what broadband is, said Jonathan Chambers, who formerly worked at the FCC, and is partner at the firm Conexon. The question should be reframed because broadband is determined by what people want and what the public subscribes to, he said.

There are different speed definitions that the FCC uses, Chambers said, and the 25/3 Mbps speed benchmark is used to determine whether an area is served or unserved. Instead, Section 254 of the Telecommunications Act should be used to define served and unserved areas, he said.

Section 254 defines access to “advanced telecommunications and information services,” which includes broadband, as “reasonably comparable” to services and rates already offered in urban areas.

But the term “reasonably” should be dropped from the definition because people have used it as an excuse, Chambers said. “Those over the course of the last 25 years since those words were enacted, people who argue that things should be ‘reasonably comparable’ in rural areas or ‘reasonably comparable’ for low-income consumers, typically laying heavily on the word ‘reasonably’—that is to say, they mean, ‘not comparable,’” he said.

Chambers said that government defines broadband only for funding reasons. “For purposes of government activity, you define broadband so you can determine where funding should be and what that funding goes for,” he said.

Long-term investment in broadband infrastructure

“It’s difficult to paint with a broad brush here, because I think it’s important to balance the conversation around getting people connected today, which is essential, but also serving them well in the long run,” Cooper said. “If we’re spending federal funding to get people connected today, we want to make sure that connection appreciates over time,” he said.

“It’s really important we look at how networks are evolving and how consumer behavior is evolving,” Cooper said. What consumers want and need currently may change down the road, he said. Data shows that consumers are learning that broadband isn’t a luxury anymore, it’s a necessity, he said.

“We should be doing everything in our power, whether that’s a federal definition or some other incentive, to put in place technologies that are going to serve us well in the future,” he said.

Chambers expressed similar sentiment. The government is at a point where spending over $100 billion dollars in broadband infrastructure is on the table, he said. “If you’re going to spend over a $100 billion dollars, don’t cheat the public. Don’t aim low,” he said. Funding for both infrastructure and competitive subscriber-based subsidies in rural and low-income areas are important, he said.

Mason agreed as well, saying that the conversation isn’t just about speed or technology, but also infrastructure and competition.

“Focusing on the speeds, we’re missing the issue,” she said. Competition is important and different technologies need to be allowed to find the solution for unserved areas, she said.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place every Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can watch the March 17, 2021, event on this page. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021, 12 Noon ET — “Redefining Broadband’s Speed Limit”

  • When “broadband” was first defined by the Federal Communications Commission in 1996, it measured at least 200 kilobits per second (Kbps) in either direction. In 2010, the agency revised the definition to be at least 4 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload. Five years later, the agency upped the standard to 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. That definition is already showing its age. Further, other states and federal agencies have other definitions. Is it time for a new broadband speed limit?

Panelists:

  • Jonathan Chambers, Partner, Conexon LLC
  • Tyler Cooper, Editor-in-chief, Broadband Now
  • Christina Mason, Vice President of Government Affairs, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

Jonathan Chambers is currently a Partner at Conexon. He has spent the past 25 years working with cable television providers, wireless companies and electric cooperatives in the early stages of planning, designing, constructing and operating telecommunications and internet access networks. Between 2012 and 2016, Mr. Chambers served as the Chief of the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis for the FCC. He holds a BA in economics from Yale College, an MA in international affairs from Columbia and a JD from Georgetown University Law Center.

Tyler Cooper is Editor-in-chief at BroadbandNow. He has more than a decade of experience in the telecom industry and has been writing about broadband issues such as the digital divide, net neutrality, cybersecurity and internet access since 2015. His work is internationally recognized; he has been published on sites like VentureBeat, TechRadar and The Next Web. He has also been featured in VICE, Digital Trends, Fox News, Voice of America, and many other outlets.

Christina Mason currently serves as Vice President of Government Affairs at Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. She has over a decade of experience in government relations planning and outreach. Before joining WISPA, she worked on the Hill at the office of Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke and as a lobbyist for The American Institute of Architects. She holds a BA in Communications and English from La Salle University and earned her JD from Howard University School of Law in Washington, DC. 

Panelist Resources

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

Broadband's Impact

Federal Focus On Municipal Builds Rubs Against States’ Policy Opposing Practice: Report

Tim White

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Photo of Tyler Cooper from BroadbandNow

April 8, 2021 – President Joe Biden’s new broadband plan, which emphasizes the importance of municipal-owned networks, is likely to cause tensions with states that have restrictive rules in place against those kinds of builds, according to a new report.

That focus on local networks in Biden’s infrastructure plan, which includes $100 billion for broadband, has some in the telecom industry critical or uneasy, while others are excited about the possibilities.

New federal funding with attached rules prioritizing municipal and co-op networks will likely collide with policy in almost half the country, as shown in a BroadbandNow report released Wednesday that details restrictive legislation that is currently on the books in 18 states and minor “roadblocks” in five other states.

BroadbandNow has monitored municipal broadband for several years, and the methodology for this report was done differently than in the past. “Instead of tallying every state that restricts municipal broadband in some way, we’re looking at those that explicitly bar or make it unreasonably difficult to establish such networks,” it reads.

“The broadband sector has come into the forefront of public discourse, with millions of Americans struggling to stay online amidst the pandemic. In many communities, local governments have turned to creating their own solutions where private competition has not met the needs of the populace,” writes Tyler Cooper, chief editor at BroadbandNow.

“These barriers vary from state to state, but tend to take the form of outright bans on the establishment and/or operation of municipal broadband infrastructure,” the report reads. “As well as bureaucratic obstacles that make it functionally infeasible to create a citywide network.”

The report also found that “five additional states (Iowa, Arkansas, Colorado, Oregon, and Wyoming) have other types of roadblocks in place that make establishing networks more difficult than it needs to be.” Those roadblocks include items like vague legal stipulations, restrictions on certain pricing mechanisms, proposal-stage barriers, phantom cost requirements, and extra tax burdens.

Several states have introduced legislation to reduce those restrictions, including an Arkansas bill that passed in February 2021, a Washington bill still in progress, a Montana bill that failed, and three bills stalled in Tennessee and Idaho, according to the report.

A Republican-led House bill called the CONNECT Act would restrict government-run broadband networks nationwide as long as more than one other broadband service was already available in an area. The bill was introduced on February 18 by Missouri Rep. Billy Long.

In direct opposition to that effort, Biden’s American Jobs Plan would prioritize funding for “broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives,” according to a White House statement.

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Broadband's Impact

Experts Weigh What Future Of Broadband Could Look Like Under Biden’s Infrastructure Plan

Tim White

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Screenshot taken from Broadband Live Online event

April 8, 2021 – Experts in Wednesday’s Broadband Breakfast Live Online event debated what “future-proofing” broadband could look like and whether President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan can achieve it.

The White House’s new “American Jobs Plan” looks to fund $100 billion for broadband infrastructure in addition to other areas, and part of that plan “prioritizes building ‘future proof’ broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas so that we finally reach 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage,” said a White House statement.

Carri Bennet, general counsel for the Rural Wireless Association, said at Wednesday’s event that fiber is essential for all types of networks. “We do mobile wireless, we do fixed wireless, we use all sorts of spectrum in our toolkit, and all of these wireless networks are connected to fiber at some point, somewhere,” she said.

But Bennet also said there are exciting developments for wireless that is not specifically fiber. “There are a lot of exciting things going on in the wireless world right now that could future-proof networks,” she said. “That’s using software and virtualized networks so that you don’t have to change out hardware on antennas on towers anymore.”

Open radio access networks (Open RAN) are such systems, which use open protocol wireless technologies that prevent the industry from relying on proprietary supplies generated by few companies. Bennet said open RAN is showing promise.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, led a bipartisan effort Tuesday requesting $3 billion in Open RAN technology funding for the Biden administration’s annual budget request.

Doug Brake, director of broadband policy at the think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said Wednesday he believes the policy needs to technology neutral.

Legislation should be flexible to allow the best solutions for an area that are needed, he said. When ‘future proofing’ comes up, he said he is worried that fiber and cable become the focus. While fiber is really important to getting many unserved areas connected, we shouldn’t lock ourselves into a single tool — we want the flexibility to solve the problem as its needed, he said.

Municipal versus private broadband

Brake also expressed concern that Biden’s plan would prioritize funds for local municipal and co-op broadband.

“We really need to leverage our private providers, particularly private providers that have large economies that scale,” he said. While municipalities and co-ops are great at filling needed gaps, “they don’t scale well outside the jurisdiction, they don’t invest in [research and development] to develop new access technologies; they don’t contribute to standards,” he said.

But Gary Bolton, CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, said Wednesday that, “We’ve seen first-hand the significant benefits and significant economic impact that fiber has when it’s deployed in communities,”. He referenced Chattanooga, Tennessee, the first city in America where gigabit-speed internet was offered in 2010. The city developed a municipally-owned fiber network that, according to a 2020 study by Bento Lobo at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, saw considerable return over the 10 years since its deployment.

“Fiber also delivers remote healthcare, online learning, public safety and provides a path for future services like 5G,” Bolton said.

On broadband affordability

Affordability is another piece of the broadband puzzle, and Biden’s proposal also seeks to address long-term cost issues. In a statement, the White House acknowledged the need for some short-term subsidies, but said that “continually providing subsidies to cover the cost of overpriced internet service is not the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers.”

Everyone needs to be able to afford broadband, Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel at the advocacy organization Free Press, said Wednesday. “We want to talk about affordability and adoption, and we’ve done that in the mapping context, we’ve done it here, and I think that’s why this plan is so exciting to us,” he said.

Funding programs like the Emergency Broadband Benefit, and the focus on affordability and adoption in Rep. Jim Clyburn’s bill and the LIFT America Act are key, he said. This is not one of those, “if you build it, they will come” situations, he said. Building “fabulous networks” in rural and urban areas that people can’t afford to use should not be the infrastructure goal, he said.

Bolton expressed support for Biden’s proposal to address long-term affordability issues, but he wants to see funding done well. “It pains me to see so much precious stimulus money going to subsidize ridiculously expensive, poor-performing broadband such as satellite in rural areas,” he said.

The details of the American Jobs Plan are still being developed, and the White House is discussing those details with a variety of members of the broadband industry, according to Bolton.

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Education

Libraries Must Be Vigilant To Ensure Adequate Broadband, Consultants Say

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Stephanie Stenberg via Internet2

April 7, 2021 – Libraries should monitor their broadband speeds and ensure they are getting quality connections, according to library consultants.

Carson Block from Carson Block Consulting and Stephanie Stenberg of the Internet2 Community Anchor program told a virtual conference hosted by the American Library Association on Tuesday that it’s time libraries take a closer look at how they are getting broadband and if they are getting the speeds they are paying for. If not, they said they should re-negotiate.

Block and Stenberg shared details about the “Towards Gigabit Libraries” (TGL) toolkit, a free, self-service guide for rural and tribal libraries to better understand and improve their broadband. The new toolkit helps libraries prepare for E-Rate internet subsidy requests to aid their budget cycles.

It also has tips about communicating effectively between library and tech people since there is a gap in knowledge between those two groups. The TGL is supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Gigabit Libraries and Beyond (GLG) to improve the toolkit and expand throughout the United States. In addition to focusing on rural and tribal libraries, now urban libraries will be included for support.

During the event, a live poll showed all participating attendees said they “very infrequently” had technical IT support available in their home libraries. Stenberg said this confirmed TGL’s findings that libraries need more tech and IT support, as the majority of respondents in previous surveys gave similar concerning results.

To really emphasize the need for adequate broadband and support at libraries, another question was asked to live attendees about their current level of expertise around procuring and delivering access to broadband as a service in their library, assuming that the majority of attendees worked for libraries. All participants said they possess “no experience” trying to get broadband in the library.

Common issues that are to blame include libraries with insufficient bandwidth, data wiring or poorly set-up networks. Old and obsolete equipment also contributed to bad Wi-Fi coverage.

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