When It Comes to High-Speed Internet, Cable Companies are Making Things Up Again

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When It Comes to High-Speed Internet, Cable Companies are Making Things Up Again

Either the cable companies are misleading customers to push them to higher-priced bundles that they maybe don’t really need, or they are misleading the FCC to avoid more accurate broadband deployment standards.  But it can’t be neither. (Image: iStock)

Right now, the Federal Communications Commission is considering bumping the definition of “highspeed broadband” from 4 Mbps down/1 Mbps up to 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up.  This change is significant, particularly because of its implications for how the Commission evaluates “timely broadband deployment” in our country, an area in which we already lag behind other developed nations significantly.

Changing the definition of broadband to reflect modern usage  does not sit particularly well with the cable and broadband industry.  So last Thursday, NCTA, the cable industry trade association, rushed a letter over to the Commission to explain why they think redefining highspeed would be a drastic and unnecessary move.

NCTA argues that 25Mbps/3Mbps simply isn't necessary to meet the legal definition of "high-speed, switched, broadband telecommunications capability that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications using any technology.”  

They go on to peculiarly question what they call a “conclusory assertion,” made by many groups boosting the benchmark speedbase, that more than one person in a household might use a device at the same time, “without providing any evidence indicating that such usage is at all 'average.'...These hypotheticals dramatically exaggerate the amount of bandwidth needed by the typical broadband user.”

It’s strange to see NCTA claim that 4/1 is totally adequate, because those same companies spend an awful lot of time every single day telling consumers that the kind of speeds they want and need far surpass a mere 4/1 threshold.

Hop over to the offerings page of Comcast, the nation’s largest highspeed broadband provider (by any definition).  Comcast’s marketing of Xfinity Internet lists 6 Mbps as the bare minimum for photo sharing and music downloads.  For streaming and downloading shows or gaming, the suggested offering ratcheting it up to 50 Mbps down for best performance.  And Comcast’s residential streaming offers go all the way up to 150 Mbps.

Time Warner Cable - the nation’s second-largest broadband provider - similarly urges customers to purchase higher speed plans for quality video streaming.  Time Warner suggests its 100 Mbps “Ultimate” plan for couples that use two computers, two mobile phones, and two video-on-demand accounts.  For a single occupant residence that streams, with a tablet, computer, and mobile phone, TWC directs to a 30 Mbps “Extreme” plan.  TWC even specifies that its low-grade 2 Mbps plan is recommended only for “the occasional Internet user” who check email or may do “a light amount of web surfing.”  And even basic social networking and downloading medium sized files calls up at least a 10 Mbps “Basic” plan.

It’s the same with other providers as well.  As it turns out, the way most providers advertise to their customers gives every indication that much greater speeds than a mere 4 Mbps/1Mbps are needed for a high-quality experience in photo sharing, music downloads, and video streaming.  The exact opposite of the message they are sending to the FCC not to break from that standard.

As for the “conclusory” assertions about multiple device homes (which, by the way, are supported by evidence multiple stakeholder filings as well as the 10th Broadband Progress Report), the providers’ own marketing materials also generally accept that consumers like to use several devices at once.  Comcast’s “Performance” package offers speeds of 50 Mbps advertised as supporting “2-3 devices online at the same time” and allowing customers to “stream and download TV shows” (with no mention of HD).  For households with 3-5 devices and streaming in HD, Comcast urges you to purchase “Blast!” packages at 105 Mbps.  And they proudly advertise six different residential “Triple Play” bundle packages which range widely in price and quality service, up to 150 Mbps.

Oh, and every single bundle, including the “Starter” package, boasts Internet of at least 50 Mbps.

So either the companies are misleading customers to push them to higher-priced bundles that they maybe don’t really need, or they are misleading the FCC to avoid more accurate broadband deployment standards (not to mention a more accurate market dominance analysis for proposed mergers).  But it can’t be neither.

It’s what we’ve come to expect by now - the internet industry talking out of both sides of it mouth.  And frankly, for a long time, this tactic worked.  There’s a long history of Washington taking industry arguments at face value.  But with the increased visibility and scrutiny telecommunications issues are receiving in recent years, that slick double-talk doesn’t always fly below the radar like it once did.  In any event, this effort seems unlikely to forestall the Commission’s proposal at this point in the game, no matter what NCTA says.  

But I guess you can’t really blame them for trying.

Kate Forscey

Kate Forscey is an Internet Rights Fellow at Public Knowledge where she advocates for the public interest on internet and technology policy and government affairs, including net neutrality, spectrum policy, and other issues crucial to preserving an open internet and consumer digital rights.

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