January 8, 2010 By Andy Opsahl
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama endorsed a federally mandated National Broadband Plan to promote Internet connectivity. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) directed the FCC to establish a National Broadband Plan. The federal government is now poised to follow through on that idea, but it may prove to be a hollow victory for those who've long advocated for higher minimum broadband speeds.
Broadband advocates and some vendors consider standards tied to the $7.2 billion for broadband projects in ARRA indicators of what will come from an overall broadband strategy. And some don't like what they see. The federal government set 768 kilobits per second (Kbps) for downloading and 200 Kbps for uploading as minimum acceptable speeds to qualify for broadband stimulus grants.
But critics say those speeds hardly equate to true broadband.
"It's almost impossible to participate in a real-time video conference [at that speed]. It's almost impossible to share video files, music files, pictures -- any large quantity of data with a time-sensitive nature to it. It's almost impossible to do that because it's barely four times the speed of dial-up," said S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, a consumer group advocating for higher speeds within the National Broadband Plan, which the FCC plans to release February.
"Certainly on the downstream side, you might be able to stream YouTube videos, but you're going to have a lot of stuttering and buffering," Turner added. "On the upstream side, it's barely enough to engage in a two-way voice over Internet phone call."
Some critics say the federal government's standard, as written, would cement America's low ranking among national average broadband speeds. Turner contends that this would stunt the nation's economy, which increasingly depends on fast Internet connections. The U.S. ranked 19th in average advertised broadband speeds compared to other countries in a 2008 study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group headquartered in France that helps governments tackle economic, social and governance challenges of a global economy.
Not all experts view the OECD's study as cause for alarm. Gartner Research Vice President Alex Winogradoff said U.S. population centers have broadband speeds comparable to other nations. The large rural population in the United States, however, makes the country seem further behind the broadband curve than it really is.
And major broadband providers, like Comcast and AT&T, say many areas of the country lack sufficient demand to make higher speeds financially sustainable. In July 2009, AT&T argued in a letter to the FCC that the agency should create one lower-speed standard for residential users and a higher one for businesses.
Existing providers and some analysts contend that users don't need access to the newest broadband applications to be legitimately connected. AT&T claimed in its letter to the FCC that, for rural residential users, the ability to send e-mails and instant messages and do basic Web browsing should drive national broadband goals.
If the national plan holds to the minimum speeds required by the stimulus, old-style copper lines will likely be used to provide DSL connections in regions that are now classified as unserved, said Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute. He wants subsidies to fund more advanced technology. "We're preserving the current infrastructure," Shark said. "What new is going to be built, other than taking copper lines and putting in a few little switches?"
Gartner's Winogradoff agrees that the stimulus's definition for minimum speed is dubious, but said it is likely to be the most realistic option for rural areas. He believes that convincing a vendor to partner on fiber deployments in rural areas would be financially impossible. "There is no way you could push fiber that deep anywhere," he said.