Does broadband speed always matter?

Does broadband speed always matter?

Is establishing a baseline speed for broadband service the wrong approach? According to Daniel Lyons, a visiting scholar with the American Enterprise Institute’s Center for Internet, Communications and Technology Policy, the government should instead use an objective, activity-based definition based on the core activities users expect a broadband network to provide.

Potential activities could include access to email, news, job boards or digital voice service for easy access to public safety officials. Another level might include access to educational resources such as school intranets and associated multimedia applications. A list of activities could be developed internally by the  Federal Communications Commission or with public participation. Armed with this information, the FCC could then calculate the minimum speeds necessary to accomplish these tasks online and assess whether a household has access to these speeds, Lyons argued in a recent TechPolicyDaily article.

“The benchmark may change over time, but only if the agency changes the bundle of activities that it deems essential to participate in digital society,” he said.

Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler determined that 25 megabit/sec (downstream) should be considered the standard broadband speed. That number is based on a household supporting multiple high-definition video streams.

“But it is unclear whether we should consider ‘access to multiple 4K Netflix streams’ essential to digital society,” Lyons said. "After all, the traditional Lifeline service supported telephone access but never subsidized cable access, because video service was considered a luxury rather than a necessity."

“One could argue that the threshold should be sufficient to support some streaming video -- if, for example, the agency could show that schools regularly assign streaming video as part of daily homework assignments. But an activity-based model requires the agency to prove the need for an activity to be included in the bundle, rather than simply assuming it to be so,” he continued.

An activity-based approach would also improve broadband competition and enable households to better determine what internet speed they need.

Activities to consider when defining minimum broadband speeds include internet access to:

  • News, which lowers the cost of access to information.
  • Online purchasing, which can be less expensive than in-store purchases.
  • Jobs, which are easier to find online.
  • Education, as internet access is often required for homework assignments for school children.

In addition to an objective determination of minimum download speeds required to accomplish defined activities, digital literacy outreach programs and low-cost equipment plans, should be considered to help close the digital divide, Lyons said.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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