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FCC chair wishes for 100Mbps down, 20Mbps up broadband minimum in US

Quite a leap from national baseline of 25Mbps down, 3Mbps up

The boss of America's communications watchdog has said its standards for minimum broadband speed, unchanged since 2015, are due for a boost.

FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel declared late last week that today's baseline of 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up doesn't correspond to the needs of US netizens and households, who require faster connections for remote work and streaming.

"The 25/3 metric isn't just behind the times, it's a harmful one because it masks the extent to which low-income neighborhoods and rural communities are being left behind and left offline," Rosenworcel said.

In place of the 25/3 standard, Rosenworcel is proposing a 100Mbps down, 20Mbps level of service nationally.

The suggested policy change will be discussed as part of the FCC's annual evaluation of the state of broadband in the US. Rosenworcel's proposal also mentioned, without much detail, "a separate national goal of 1Gbps/500Mbps for the future."

Details are lacking for Rosenworcel's 100/20 plan, too: the announcement of her notice of inquiry makes no mention of how the FCC would specifically pressure or require internet service providers to meet that minimum standard, nor how it would enforce such a policy if enacted. We'll let you know when the supporting documents appear publicly.

The press release does say the proposal will include evidence in support of the 100/20 standard, as well as requirements for service providers wishing to receive funds from the broader internet infrastructure bill that included provisions for broadband modernization. 

From what we can tell, it's likely ISPs and cable giants will have to meet the updated minimum if they want to tap into federal subsidies to build new networks, if the proposed changes go ahead. The FCC is also required by US law to ensure all Americans can get access to the latest telecommunications technologies "in a reasonable and timely fashion." If folks are left behind, the regulator is allowed to take action to help correct that as well as promote competition in markets.

Thus, the watchdog has a few sticks it can beat internet providers with. Today's 25/3 metric makes it easy-peasy for ISPs to demonstrate they're adequately serving the majority of American subscribers.

Is 100/20 universally feasible in the US?

Glenn O'Donnell, Forrester VP and research director, said that it's going to be practically impossible for the FCC to enforce the standard Rosenworcel proposed across the whole nation.

While, according to, the United States is ranked 14th in the world with an average fixed-broadband download rate of 225Mbps (median: 8th with 153Mbps) and most states have a mean speed greater than 100Mbps, as you get out into the countryside, various challenges are going to hit connectivity and availability.

"Imposing this universally across the country will not be possible. Rural America is an altogether different world. Technical and economic limitations prevent providers from serving many of these areas properly," O'Donnell told The Register

Rural America is an altogether different world. Technical and economic limitations prevent providers from serving many of these areas properly

And download speeds are only half the story: the USA mean upload speed, we're told, is 86Mbps – but the median is 21Mbps, only just above Rosenworcel's minimum. While downloads may fly by, sharing large documents and archives or posting large blocks of content from home can be painful and frustrating with limited upload connectivity.

Interestingly, the stats indicate Comcast's Xfinity and Charter's Spectrum could manage at least 25/3 broadband for 90 percent of their subscribers, which were the best out of the lot, and CenturyLink, which was the worst, managed only 57 percent. So even for the top ISPs, one in ten users couldn't even get 25/3 let alone 100/20.

If enforcement happens, O'Donnell said, it will be in urban areas with access to fiber and multiple ISPs. That means that members of the Rural Broadband Association, who praised Rosenworcel's proposal, may not get the speed boosts they're hoping for. 

But could the FCC, with one vacancy among its five commissioners and the other seats filled by a pair each of Democrats and Republicans, even pass such a measure? If they vote on the policy along party lines, it'll remain in deadlock. President Biden's nomination for the empty seat, which if approved would end this impasse, is also stalled.

O'Donnell said the FCC is less prone to partisan bickering than other lawmaking bodies, "the FCC is usually focused on the best solution based on technology and policy," he opined, although recent history suggests otherwise.

"I don't really see anything at risk here regarding a national standard, but I do anticipate a lot of discontent on enforcement." ®

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