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Next TV: The Speed Lowdown on Downloads

The Federal Communications Commission has made 25 Megabits per second the de facto standard for high-speed broadband, which is also its calculated minimum download speed for 4K video.

As streaming becomes more prevalent, secondary sets in TV homes are getting less use. 

As streaming becomes more prevalent, secondary sets in TV homes are getting less use. 

Some calls for the regulator to bump up that minimum have been tied, in part, to the rise in video streaming that will only grow as broadband access devices become the new home video monitor of choice.

The FCC defines minimum speeds as those needed for "adequate performance" by the relevant application based on one activity at a time, so if there are multiple video streamers concurrently, the need for speed increases significantly.

Recently, the FCC ruled that streaming video can be considered a substitute for standard cable services when it comes to determining effective video competition in a market, so having sufficient speeds will be important to driving that competition and maintaining that competitive profile.

Since the average U.S. household has multiple TV sets and broadband access devices are becoming the new go-to video, broadband speeds will need to keep pace to ensure OTT remains a competitive substitute for traditional cable, at least while traditional cable lasts. (Statistics suggest, though, that the number of in-home TV sets is falling as the number of streaming devices rises.)

Broadband operators don't see it that way. In arguing that the FCC should not raise its benchmark for reasonable and timely broadband deployment, NCTA-The Internet & Television Association told the agency that speeds of 25 Mbps upstream and 3 Mbps downstream can accommodate “critical functions on multiple devices,” including video streaming.

NCTA suggested the FCC could even lower its speed threshold for broadband availability and that even slower speeds can handle streaming, particularly in the 60% of households with only one or two residents.

While cable calls streaming a critical function, the FCC doesn't actually list video streaming in the "advantages of broadband" section of its online "Getting Broadband" Q&A, which include distance learning, telemedicine, voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) telephone service and online shopping. That’s despite the fact its OTT competition decision presumes streaming video is a competitive alternative sufficient to justify deregulating cable rates. When contacted about the absence of streaming video in the broadband advantages section, a spokesperson thanked Next TV for flagging the omission and said it was being added.

Video does feature prominently among the FCC's "rough guidelines" for what speed is needed for various applications.

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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.