Broadband internet should bring 100Mbps downloads, FCC chairwoman proposes

20Mbps sounds a little low for uploads, but this is just the start

If you were online in the 1990’s, you remember the cacophonous shriek of your modem as you logged into AOL, then having to wait minutes to download a song from Napster. The stakes were low and it didn’t really matter if you had an ISP or not. Today, still in the long shadow of COVID, the internet has become a pillar of our lives, and living without a broadband connection means you are literally cut off from many opportunities. Thankfully, the FCC says most Americans have access to broadband (warning: PDF download) these days, but what “broadband” means could change if the commission chairwoman has her way.


The standard by which we judge broadband coverage is based on the FCC’s current definition of broadband, set in 2015: 25Mbps down, 3Mbps up. For context, that’s barely enough to participate in a group call on Zoom at 720p. Former chairman Tom Wheeler put down this standard and his successor, Ajit Pai, kept it in place during his tenure.

But current chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has signaled that she wants to change that definition to 100/20 in the near future, and 1,000/500 as a national goal moving forward.

The number is important because the FCC is obliged by law (via Cornell Law School) to ensure that all Americans have access to broadband internet. Changing the definition of broadband means that either the traditional ISPs will have to up their game or the FCC will have to dip its finger in the market to guarantee broadband coverage — as with most things involving the regulation of business, this will probably mean both.

Many were upset last year when Pai declined to change the standards. Rosenworcel was actually one of those voices who laid out her boss’s “baffling” position in a scathing dissent with millions of students cut off from internet access doing their homework in front of libraries or coffee shops.

Don’t expect change to come soon. The next step, which we should see soon, is for the FCC to release a Notice of Inquiry that would give more details and background to the plan, and invite public comment. The commission would also need to hold a vote to agree on the change, something that isn’t likely to happen without a fifth commissioner on the board to break a potential 2-2 tie — that slot has been left vacant since Pai left.


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