Defining broadband

By Bruce Mehlman

The Federal Communications Commission is fully immersed in hearings, workshops, panel discussions and requests for comment as it works toward writing a National Broadband Plan by February 2010 as directed by Congress.

The principal issues facing the FCC are defining where broadband currently exists (and, conversely, where it doesn't), determining how to fill existing gaps in broadband availability, and ensuring that those who have broadband available to them adopt this important communications tool.

There has been a good deal written about whether adequate maps exist to determine where broadband is available. But, an even more basic question is: Just what is broadband?

Unlike beauty, we cannot afford to have broadband defined as whatever is in the eye - or on the screen - of the beholder. The FCC will have to take into consideration a number of issues regarding that crucial definition.

First of all the definition must be dynamic to account for the continuous evolution and innovation that has taken place, and will surely continue, in the not too distant future. The broadband of tomorrow will look very different than the broadband of today. In fact, today's broadband will be tomorrow's traffic jam, and the need for speed will persist as the exponential explosion of content (especially streaming video) demands increasingly more robust and resilient networks. The FCC must ensure there is a process for adjusting the definition as the marketplace evolves.

The definition of broadband must be inclusive. With the recent growth of mobile broadband we have seen a proliferation of new devices capable of connecting to the internet - from smart phones to remote monitoring devices used by people with chronic medical conditions. These devices operate at differing speeds, and require differing amounts of bandwidth, but nonetheless should all be considered broadband devices. By defining broadband with inclusiveness in mind, the FCC will promote the development of emerging devices that may turn into the next great innovation. 

The definition must be forward-looking. In addition to recognizing the importance of existing broadband devices, the definition of broadband must leave room for future applications. The FCC should remember that the applications that were mission critical in the past like e-mail, while still useful, are less vital now that we have other interactive technologies like video-conferencing. Therefore, broadband is most logically understood as the connectivity required for accessing, and making use of, certain cutting-edge applications, the list of which will certainly continue to evolve and expand over time. 

The definition also must not stifle private sector investment. Many of the greatest innovations and improvements in technology have come as a result of private sector investment. Private sector players currently are investing $60-$80 billion annually in broadband infrastructure upgrades. Investments by private sector players are varied, spanning multiple platforms: including wireline, wireless, cable and emerging forms of broadband delivery. These investments enable faster speeds, wider bandwidth and more powerful applications. Ultimately, private sector investment is the engine spurring innovation and driving the increasing availability of this life-improving technology. 

There will be technical specifications that are attached to any definition of broadband. Speed of throughput, packets delivered, upload and download speeds, delivery type - cable, fiber, wireless, satellite, etc. - and many other metrics.

The adoption of broadband in the United States is increasing dramatically in spite of the recession. The most recent figures - covering the second quarter of 2009 - show there are 86.2 million broadband connections in the United States.  That is an increase of 15.8 percent over the same quarter in 2008. As adoption rates continue to rise, it is crucial that the FCC not be trapped into defining broadband as it exists today, but broadband as it will exist tomorrow.

Bruce Mehlman is a leader in Washington D.C., helping Fortune 500 companies and innovative start-ups understand, anticipate and navigate the public policy environment and trends likely to impact the global marketplace through the bipartisan lobbying firm he founded, Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti. He concurrently serves as the Executive Director of the Technology CEO Council and Co-Chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance.