FCC Rethinks Definition Of 'High-Speed' Internet

The Federal Communications Commission reportedly is considering redefining broadband Internet service as speeds of at least 10 Mbps downstream, up from the current 4 Mbps.

The potential change appears driven largely by the explosive growth of streaming video, particularly high-quality video, which requires speedy transmission. Of course, a change in definition won't in itself change the speed that Internet service providers offer their subscribers. But it could still have an impact on how the FCC and lawmakers treat ISPs.

That's because the new definition would mean that a huge proportion of American households -- around 80 million, according to Free Press research director Derek Turner -- only have one option for broadband service: their local cable company.

Telephone companies, which offer DSL service, by and large aren't delivering speeds that would meet the new 10 Bps standard. There are some exceptions, like Verizon's fiber-to-the-home Fins service and AT&T's fiber-to-the-node U-Verse service, but the vast majority of people receiving Internet service through telecoms access the Web at speeds slower than 10 Mbps.

The upshot, according to Turner, is that around 60% of the country will live in an area with only one broadband provider. And, if Comcast's merger with Time Warner goes through, the combined company will be the “monopoly provider” for around 50 million homes, Turner estimates.

That prospect in itself could mean that Comcast's deal with Time Warner will get extra scrutiny. “Monopoly is the kind of thing that perks legislator's ears up,” Turner says.

Even if policymakers aren't prepared to block the deal outright, they could still impose more stringent merger conditions -- including net neutrality terms. Comcast already agreed to follow net neutrality principles through at least 2018 in order to gain approval for its merger with NBC Universal. It wouldn't be surprising for regulators to extend that term, if Comcast-Time Warner becomes the sole broadband provider for a large swath of the country.

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