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Wheeler Hits the Gas On Broadband Speeds

WASHINGTON — Advanced telecommunications is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion, and to qualify as advanced, broadband will need to be delivered at speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.

That’s according to a draft of the Federal Communications Commisssion’s latest Section 706 report to Congress on the state of advanced telecom deployment.

The draft was circulated to the other commissioners at about the same time that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler was signaling Internet-service providers would face Title II reclassification as a further effort to promote broadband adoption.

It was a one-two punch for ISPs. Many of them have warned that Title II is an investment killer and a guarantee of years of legal challenges. They have also complained about upping speed definitions and the Section 706 report’s recent conclusions — under former Democratic chairman Julius Genachowski — of insufficient deployment.

If the FCC determines that broadband is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion, it is empowered to take various regulatory actions to make it so.

MoffettNathanson partner and senior research analyst Craig Moffett also pointed out that increasing the speed to 25 Mbps would give a combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable a larger share of the broadband market, an issue in front of the FCC as it vets the proposed merger of the Nos. 1 and 2 U.S MSOs. Moffett said he still expects the deal to be approved, but should it fail, the combined company’s share of the broadband market would likely be the reason.

The current Section 706 report defines broadband at speeds of 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. Wheeler, though, has been signaling that at least 10 Mbps, and more likely 25 Mbps, should be the new “table stakes” for broadband download speeds in an age of high-definition viewing, remote health monitoring and the Internet of lots of things.

Given the updated 25 Mbps/3 Mbps benchmark, the competition report concludes that broadband is still not being deployed “to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion,” especially in rural areas, including Native American tribal lands and U.S. territories.

The report concludes that a 4-Mbps/1-Mbps definition is not sufficient for high-quality voice, graphics and video.

According to the report, 53% of rural Americans and 17% of all Americans don’t have access to speeds of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.

Just last month, the FCC boosted its threshold speeds for grants from the Connect America Fund (CAF) for broadband buildouts to 10 Mbps downstream and 1.5 Mbps upstream, but even those buildouts wouldn’t qualify if the draft were adopted.

Congress, in Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, requires the FCC to issue an annual report on whether advanced telecommunications services are being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion to all Americans. If it is not so, the agency may take regulatory steps to make it so.

A source said the report is accompanied by a Notice of Inquiry asking what more the FCC needs to do to increase the pace of deployment.

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.