The FCC’s new definition demoted many subscribers’ broadband services to something less.

“Broadband” is the big buzzword these days. Do we know what it means? Do we care?

The FCC cares.  Until recently, its working definition was 200 kilobits per second, or roughly four times the maximum dial-up speed.  That was passably fast when the Commission first specified it, back in 1999.  But with the progress of technology, 200 kbps soon slipped behind the state of the art, and by the mid-2000’s had evolved into an object of derision among the technological cognoscenti.

 Now the FCC has upped its standards.  It newly defines broadband as a service that actually enables an end user to download at 4 Mbps and upload at 1 Mbps.  The choice of 4 Mbps reflects an estimate of the speed needed to watch high-quality video (not high-definition) while others in the household simultaneously use email and browse the Internet.  Advertised speeds “up to” so-and-so do not count.  What matters is the speed actually delivered.  A better definition would require that speed to be available during peak usage hours, but the FCC has not gone that far.

Another controversial criterion remains unchanged.  While it now collects broadband deployment data at the more “granular” Census Tract level rather than by Zip Code, the FCC still aggregates the resulting data and assesses broadband availability by counties.  More importantly, it still considers broadband to be available in a county even if only one percent of the households in that county are broadband subscribers.  That criterion, combined with the new speed cut-off, relegates almost a third of U.S. counties to the “unserved” category.  Compared with U.S. averages, those counties tend to have smaller populations, lower population densities, more rural area, and lower per capita incomes.

Redefining broadband has an interesting side effect. Two of the more common Internet delivery technologies, DSL and 3G, fall short of the new speed criterion.  So do some cable and wireless services.  Advertised 4G speeds straddle the line.  In all, roughly half the broadband-using population, as of last week, woke up this week to find they no longer have broadband.  The FCC has yet to coin a name for what they do have.  No doubt the DSL and 3G marketing folks will come up with something.  Of course, these users’ Internet experience did not change, only the name for it.  But here in Washington, the names of things often matter more than the things themselves.

Outside Washington, though, people have more important things to worry about.  The FCC’s obsession with quantifying download speeds is not widely shared.  In fact, most Americans have no idea what their Internet connection speed is.  We are willing to bet they don’t much care what the FCC calls it, either.