New definition denies “broadband” service to millions of Americans.

The FCC has taken broadband away from millions of American households. Sure, their connections still work fine. Their speed is unchanged.

But the service all those people have no longer counts as broadband.

That’s because the FCC has redefined its criteria for “advanced telecommunications capability” – what the rest of us call broadband – increasing them from the previous levels of 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload to 25 Mbps and 3 Mbps, respectively.

The increase, the first since 2010, is meant to reflect changes in how people use their Internet connections. Much of that change can be summed up in one word: Netflix. The growing popularity of streaming TV content and movies, particularly in high definition, has not only strained Internet facilities nationwide but also changed consumers’ expectations as to what constitutes acceptable Internet service. Other streaming services, like Amazon and Hulu, add to the demand for high bit rates; their numbers are likely to swell if the FCC opts to treat Internet-delivered program services as MVPDs. These changes will accelerate as more households acquire ultra-high-definition (4K) TVs and begin downloading the higher-bandwidth data streams they require.

At the same time, most people don’t actually care about their numerical data speed, or whether it qualifies as broadband. But they do care – a lot – when their movies pixelate and freeze due to insufficient capacity at the Internet service provider. The new definition means that people receiving “broadband” service (as newly redefined) should not experience these difficulties as often.

Whether your service still qualifies as broadband, though, depends a lot on where you live. According to the FCC’s data, fully 92% of urban dwellers can access 25/3 data rates, but only 47% of rural Americans can. That drops to a shameful 15% for those in rural areas of tribal lands.

The cable TV companies, which provide most of the country’s broadband service (most of the rest comes from Verizon’s FIOS), vehemently opposed the change through the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, their national trade association. They argued to the FCC that 25 Mbps is far more bandwidth than consumers actually use or need, even for streaming 4K TV signals or to support multiple simultaneous users in the household.

So how did the FCC arrive at the 25/3 criteria? In part by consulting authorities familiar with actual Internet consumer usage: cable TV companies!

According to the Commission, Comcast’s marketing materials recommend 25 Mbps to stream video, and even more to stream and download HD video and participate in online gaming. Time Warner Cable suggests that 30 Mbps is appropriate for a family that wants to use multiple devices simultaneously. (Irony alert: Comcast and Time Warner are both members of NCTA.) Verizon told customers that laptops, televisions, and gaming systems can take from 5 Mbps to 75 Mbps, while AT&T promoted speeds up to 45 Mbps to “[d]ownload music, movies, and more in record time.”

Do you still have broadband? Check your data speeds here or here. (CommLawBlog is not responsible for these sites.)