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How Fast Is Broadband Internet? The FCC Just Quadrupled the Answer

 How Fast Is Broadband Internet? The FCC Just Quadrupled the Answer

The Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to raise the benchmark for broadband internet to 100Mbps download speed and 20Mbps upload speed. 

This is the first time the agency has raised the speed requirement in nearly a decade, and it’s something FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has been pushing for years. 

“This fix is overdue,” Rosenworcel said in a statement (PDF). “It aligns us with pandemic legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the work of our colleagues at other agencies. It also helps us better identify the extent to which low-income neighborhoods and rural communities are underserved.”

The last time the FCC increased the benchmark was in 2015, when it raised the minimum speeds required from 4/1Mbps to 25/3Mbps. At the time, 55 million Americans lacked access to 25/3Mbps speeds. 

According to the FCC’s most recent data (PDF) from December 2022, “45 million Americans lack access to both 100/20Mbps fixed service and 35/3Mbps mobile 5G-NR service.” 

The new broadband definition could affect how state and federal funding is used to expand broadband services. Federal law requires that the FCC determine whether “advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion” and to “take immediate action to accelerate deployment.”  

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That “advanced telecommunications capability” is now four times faster than it was a day ago. With this higher standard, the FCC could take regulatory action to force internet providers to expand access to areas that are underserved.

The FCC voted 3-2 to adopt the new standard, with the two Republican commissioners dissenting. As recently as 2021, then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai stated that the 25/3Mbps standard “enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications.”

In an era of videoconferencing and smart homes, the current FCC decided that was no longer true. Zoom, for instance, requires upload speeds of 3Mbps or higher. The FCC’s definition considers the speeds delivered to your home. Because most devices are connected through Wi-Fi, the actual speeds they receive aren’t quite as fast. CNET’s extensive testing of Wi-Fi routers has found that Wi-Fi generally delivers about half the speed of a wired connection. In many cases, the difference is even more pronounced.

The FCC also set a long-term goal of increasing the benchmark to 1,000Mbps download and 500Mbps upload speed. That might be more speed than most people need right now, but it’s in line with an often-cited rule in the internet industry called Nielsen’s law, which states that a high-end internet user’s connection speed grows by roughly 50% each year, doubling every 21 months — an observation that has held true since 1983. 

Right now, the average internet speed in the US is 242/31Mbps, compared to 198/23Mbps a year ago. It’s not hard to imagine a future in which virtual reality and smart home applications fuel massive increases in bandwidth needs. But for now, the FCC is ensuring everyone can at least make video calls.

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