According to the US, 72% of Aussies don't have broadband

30 January 2015

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has changed the definition of broadband within the United States. The new parameters state a minimum of 25Mbps download (up from 4Mbps) and 3Mbps upload (up from 1Mbps), placing it outside the maximum possible capabilities of ADSL technology and well outside what most Aussies on ADSL actually receive in their homes.

ADSL is also used in the US, although not as commonly as here. As a result of the new definition, internet service providers (ISPs) within the country will no longer be able to advertise ADSL plans as “broadband”.

To draw another comparison, Australian NBN Tier 1 plans offer a maximum of 12Mbps down and 1Mbps up. These would also be ineligible. Even Tier 2 and Tier 3 NBN plans would barely scrape through with a maximum download speed of 25Mbps each; the minimum required by the new US guidelines.

The Verge reports that FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who was unanimously confirmed in her appointment by the US senate in May 2012, seemed to think the new requirements are too soft, calling for a minimum download speed of 100Mbps.

“We invented the internet, we can do audacious things if we set big goals, and I think our new threshold, frankly, should be 100Mbps. I think anything short of that shortchanges our children, our future, and our new digital economy".

100Mbps is the maximum speed a Tier 5 NBN plan – the fastest currently available in Australia.

It’s estimated that 13.1% of US citizens don’t have access to internet speeds that fulfil the new broadband requirements.

What if this happened here?

A report from the Australian Department of Communications in December 2013 sites ADSL technology as the infrastructure most-often used to provide broadband. It is also by far the most widely available, with approximately 9.9 million premises (91%) having access to fixed-line broadband via ADSL.

This number is unexpectedly even higher than the 81% of premises that had access to 3G and 4G mobile networks at the same time in December 2013. Cable was 28%.

Unsurprisingly, the report also found that only 28% of Australian premises had access to speeds of between 25Mbps and 110Mbps – the same percentage of users with cable internet access.

That means the other 72% of Australian households would not have access to “broadband” internet, if the ACCC took it's North American counterpart's lead and redefined the word to mean a minimum speed of 25Mbps down.

It looks like, as far as the FCC is concerned, almost three quarters of Aussie households don’t have access to broadband.

Of course, this was 2013. The figures may have changed since then. There's also the increased coverage of 4G services, which often exceed 25Mbps. However, 4G caps are, at best, restrictive, and tend to cost far more per GB than fixed-line alternatives.

How can you change a definition?

Technically the term “broadband” has nothing to do with speed. Broadband used to mean a communication technology that could simultaneously handle multiple signals, as opposed to baseband which could only send and receive one. It has since past in to the vernacular as a synonym for “fast internet”.

So, what is the point of redefining a word that had already lost its original meaning? Quite a lot. The US had already previously defined broadband as a maximum of 4Mbps down and 1Mbps up. These are agonisingly slow speeds, but an ISP could happily advertise them as “broadband” to consumers who were only familiar with the term in its colloquial sense of “fast internet”.

It’s important to protect consumers from being misled. The only way to do this is to either educate consumers on what a term specifically means, or to re-define the term to fit the popular interpretation. The latter is probably the easier of the two to pull off, and seeing as “broadband” didn’t originally have a speed-based meaning anyway then what’s the harm in upping the stakes? In for a penny…

As an added benefit, any ISP within the US that now wants to use that valuable and familiar term will have to provide an internet connection worthy of a modern society. No more “broadband” that uses twisted pair copper wiring networks that have been in place for over a century. It’s a solid incentive to force an important industry to grow, perhaps ensuring that its customers will not be left behind as their culture becomes more heavily reliant on the internet in years to come.

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