Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How Fast Is Your Broadband Connection?

By Mikyung Baek, Research and Technical Associate at The Kirwan Institute

The Federal Communications Commission has until February 17, 2010 to present a National Broadband Plan to Congress. Five months before the deadline, a debate is going on around the definition of broadband. Cable companies are playing with the ‘provisioned’ versus ‘actual’ speed and argue against using the actual speed for the definition of broadband. AT&T wants broadband to be defined by the minimal set of applications and says it is “not the ability to engage in real-time, two-way gaming, but obtaining meaningful access to the Internet’s resources and to reliable email communications and other basic tools” that is at stake. This translates into this: if you have a broadband connection in your neighborhood, however fast or slow it may be or regardless of what you can or can’t do with that connection, you are counted as wired; you already have ‘meaningful access’ and ‘basic tools’ because the ‘provisioned’ speed of your connection is, by definition, broadband.

A satellite television operator, EchoStar, wants the definition to read ‘at least 768 Kbps downstream and 200 Kbps upstream.’ Why? 768 Kbps is enough for satellite operators to handle satellite ‘broadband’ service and by insisting upon holding down the broadband to 768kbs, they want to be counted as ‘broadband’ service providers. Verizon also wants keep the bar low for the broadband at 768/200 Kbps.

A recent reality check: A Chicago Tribune article last month noted where the country stands in Internet speed, 28th among industrialized nations with an average of 5.1Mbps, compared to 20.4 Mbps of South Korea and 15.8 Mbps of Japan. Not only U.S. consumers are stuck with slower connection speed, it comes with a lot higher cost. According to OECD Broadband Statistics, average broadband monthly price per ‘advertised’ Mbps is $10.02 in the U.S., almost 12 times of what South Koreans pay, $0.85.

We obviously have a long way to go. And as far as consumers are concerned, the faster the better, and the cheaper the better, regardless of whether it falls under someone’s definition of broadband at a certain point of time or not. If it was December 2006, when FCC’s definition of broadband was 200 Kbps (up or downstream), my connection of up to 1.5 Mbps would be the ‘broadestband’ of all! The National Broadband Plan needs to set the goal of universal access to broadband, but the quality of broadband needs to be set high enough to ensure digital opportunities in its truest sense. If we identify 768 Kbps as baseline broadband speed, we will be restricting the digital capabilities for those who live in the areas of lower speed when it is coupled with existing digital inequality. One of the things I would like the FCC to do is to focus on enhancing digital opportunities for consumers across the country by ensuring transparency in broadband availability data in terms of the speed (minimum and maximum, upstream and downstream, provisioned and actual) and price. This will increase market competition between broadband providers and eventually improve the quality of broadband connection as well as penetration rates as was the case in many other countries. We will then have choices between high speed internet connections at affordable prices in every neighborhood in the nation.


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