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Chairman Tom Wheeler

FCC Chairman Calls For Stronger Broadband Competition, Especially For High-Speed Connections

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In a speech this morning, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler discussed the state of American broadband, arguing that there is a lack of competition in the market, especially in terms of truly fast connections.

Broadband, as it is currently defined by the FCC, is a connection of at least 4 Mbps. That’s too slow, according to Wheeler, who noted that his agency is looking to increase that metric to a minimum of 10 Mpbs. Even so, Wheeler stated that 10 Mbps “doesn’t fully capture the increasing demand for better wired broadband,” given that consumers increasingly use a number of devices at home that can “overwhelm” a connection of that speed.

Americans need access to faster Internet. Wheeler calls 25 Mbps connections “table stakes” in the current day. While more than 90 percent of Americans have access to at least one 4 Mbps provider, the percentage slips as the speeds in question rise: at the 25 Mbps speed, around one in five Americans lack a single provider. Less than a fourth have access to more than one provider at that speed.

The implication of the above is that if the average American wants to purchase a quick connection to the Internet, they have limited options. Limited options implies limited competition, and thus, most often, lesser service at greater prices.

Internet access is not a luxury service, but a requirement to take part in the modern economy. The FCC’s work to expand access to broadband is therefore a project that can look nearly complete in the vein of 4 Mbps connections, but also quite incomplete when you take into view properly quick connections.

Wheeler made the competition argument explicitly, which is notable. From his prepared remarks:

The simple lesson of history is that competition drives deployment and network innovation. That was true yesterday and it will be true tomorrow. Our challenge is to keep that competition alive and growing. […]

In fact, AT&T has announced plans to deploy gigabit fiber to 21 major metropolitan markets. Many of these are in same markets where Google has announced plans to lay fiber.

A year ago, Cox Cable said it wouldn’t be upgrading to gigabit networks because it would cost billions. Now it says it will, starting with communities where Google and CenturyLink are deploying fiber.

It’s as simple as that.

How does Wheeler intend to encourage not only broadband penetration as previously defined, but also connections that are up to par in terms of speed? Opening up more spectrum was cited, via both the coming Incentive Auction, and by boosting the amount of spectrum that is unlicensed more generally. Wheeler also cited community broadband as a potential catalyst for increased competition.

That proposal has run into congressional opposition, and direct corporate attack.

Wheeler, who is currently struggling to land on his feet in the net neutrality debate, is setting a somewhat combative tone when it comes to broadband penetration and speed. He even wrote out what he calls his “mantra:” “Competition, Competition, Competition.” Not a bad choice of words.

Netflix penned a short blog post detailing its support for what Wheeler said, calling it a “hard truth” that there is “not enough [broadband] competition to protect consumers and businesses who rely on the Internet.” Which is to say, everyone.

IMAGE BY FLICKR USER SEAN MACENTEE UNDER CC BY 2.0 LICENSE (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)