FCC’s New Broadband Standard Could Impact Fiber Alternatives

The consequences of playing favorites and why the FCC should not be directing the market.

By guest author Johnny Kampis
April 9, 2024

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent increase of the broadband standard could have major impacts on tech neutral broadband development and closing the digital divide.

The FCC (as expected) voted 3-2 at its March 14 meeting to increase the fixed broadband standard from 25 Megabits download and 3 Megabits upload to 100/20. Prior to the increase, many federal funding mechanisms, including the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, had already defined areas unable to access 100/20 as underserved and required deployment at those speeds.

A major drawback to the standard increase is it will likely acerbate the already growing gap in tech neutrality in federal government programs. BEAD, that $42.5 billion behemoth, already strongly favors fiber over other broadband deployment strategies. But fiber can be hard to deploy in some of the most remote and geographically varied parts of the country. Technologies like fixed wireless broadband and satellite have been used to service some of these areas, but those technologies don’t always meet the new broadband standard.

This move could mean that even though broadband has been deployed at a rapid rate, that progress could be for naught when systems don’t meet the new arbitrary download and upload speeds. 

Satellite providers, and groups like US Telecom and NCTA – The Internet & Television Association have argued that benchmarks should remain tech neutral so providers have more flexibility in using the best technology for each build, Fierce Telecom noted. 

Republican Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington voted against the FCC’s broadband deployment report at the meeting. While Carr said he agreed that the FCC should aim for the 100/20 standard, he also pointed out the report left out satellite broadband. The public draft of the report argued that the lower capacity of satellite networks makes them inadequate alternatives to land-based broadband.

The Section 706 report, required by the Telecommunications Act, was the first that the FCC has released in three years. It stated that broadband was not being deployed in a “reasonable and timely fashion.” The report said that 24 million Americans lack 100/20 service.

That report set a long-term goal of 1 Gbps/500 Mbps, which would clearly shut out many technologies currently used for deployment. 

“We need to be able to articulate the use cases for such high speeds that justify making the taxpayer subsidize deployment of such service to every quarter of the country,” Simington said. “This report doesn’t get there, and I fear that instead it sets the stage for a generation of wasteful spending.”

The FCC broadband standard increase comes as technologies such as fixed wireless continue to grow. Matt Larsen, CEO of fixed wireless provider Vistbeam, said at a recent industry conference in Oklahoma City that fixed wireless growth has actually surpassed fiber growth recently, according to a report from Leichtman Research Group. 

“My interpretation of that data is that fixed wireless meets the needs of 99 percent of households, and consumers are choosing it because the monthly costs are lower than fiber and cable,” Larsen told Broadband Breakfast. 

As technology improves, it is important for the FCC to shoot for higher goals that meet most Americans’ needs. But the commission should not forget that some Americans’ needs are satisfied by lower speeds, and that alternative technologies to fiber sufficiently meet those demands. By raising broadband standards, the commission risks pushing out these other delivery mechanisms from being able to access taxpayer funding to connect more Americans.

Johnny Kampis is director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance