The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report stating that the FCC’s current broadband minimum benchmark speeds — 25Mbps for downloading and 3Mbps for uploading — are too slow for many small business needs today. This benchmark was implemented in 2015 under FCC chair Tom Wheeler and was not updated by the next chair, Ajit Pai. Wheeler updated it from 4Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream during his four-year term, an increase opposed by Republicans and the broadband industry.
Ars Technica reports that, “in his last annual broadband-deployment report issued in January 2021, Pai concluded that ‘fixed services with speeds of 25/3Mbps continue to meet the statutory definition of advanced telecommunications capability’.” Before the GAO report came out, consumer advocates had lobbied for an update in benchmark speeds.
The GAO, which focuses on small businesses, noted that FCC officials admitted “they are not aware of any small business requirements that have been taken into consideration in determining the minimum speed benchmark” and urged the Commission to analyze those needs for its next broadband benchmark.
The GAO pointed to a 2017 fact sheet published by BroadbandUSA (a National Telecommunications and Information Administration program) stating that “small businesses need a minimum of 50Mbps speeds in order to conduct tasks such as managing inventory, operating point-of-sale terminals, and coordinating shipping.”
It added that a 2019 USDA report on rural broadband and agriculture determined that “as technology advances and volumes of data needed to manage agriculture production grow, speeds in excess of 25/3Mbps with more equal download and upload speeds will likely be necessary.”
Pai’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund “set 25Mbps/3Mbps as the minimum, though it used several speed tiers and ended up allotting nearly all the money to ISPs that pledged speeds of at least 100Mbps/20Mbps.”
Although four senators pushed for the FCC and “other Biden administration agencies” to use a 100Mbps upstream/downstream standard, “the GAO didn’t recommend a specific standard, but it wrote in the full report’s conclusion that the current one is likely not fast enough, particularly on the upload side.”
Biden and Congress are discussing “how to spend $65 billion on broadband deployment … [and the] symmetrical 100Mbps standard … would likely ensure that government-subsidized networks are built with fiber instead of technologies that have slower uploads, like cable and fixed wireless.”
One consequence of boosting the broadband benchmark would be that more Americans will be classified as “unserved” by the government. “With so many of our nation’s providers rolling out gigabit service, it’s time for the FCC to adjust its baseline upward, too,” said FCC acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel last year. She added that the COVID-19 pandemic made it “painfully clear” the existence of many unserved Americans, many of whom gravitating to parking lots to use free Wi-Fi signals.
The FCC’s 2021 Broadband Deployment Report revealed that “only about 67 percent of rural Americans have access to 100/10Mbps speeds, compared to about 83 percent at the current 25/3Mbps.”
Broadband: FCC Should Analyze Small Business Speed Needs, Government Accountability Office, 7/8/21
How Much Internet Speed Do You Need? 73% of Us Have No Clue, CNET, 6/17/21
Slow Wi-Fi Could Mean Your Provider Is Throttling Your Internet. Here’s How to Tell, CNET, 6/29/21
How Fast Is Your Internet Connection? Here’s an Easy Way to Find Out, CNET, 7/12/21