By Tracy Scheckel OTELCO
What Defines Broadband?
When cable companies began to provide Internet access to consumers, the service was faster than traditional DSL and dial-up, and the industry coined the term to mean high-speed Internet access. Today, broadband is defined by the speed of upstream and downstream data transmission.
Who Defines Broadband?
On a national level, the current FCC standard is 25/3 Mbps, and has been a moving target for years. To confuse things even further, the speed requirements for the Connect America Fund broadband (CAF) model is 10 / 1 Mbps.
The ConnectME Authority in Maine is a quasi-government entity that administers a grant program for broadband infrastructure and planning initiatives. A recent change in the rule under which the Authority operates allows the group to adjust the definition of broadband in order to determine which locations are unserved and thus eligible for grant funding. For some time, the threshold has been 1.5 Mbps/768 Kbps meaning that any location receiving faster speeds isn’t eligible for funding. Even by FCC standards, the ConnectME threshold is inadequate, so the Authority decided to look at a potential adjustment of its definition of adequate broadband.
A publicly noticed meeting of the Board along with various stakeholders was conducted on April 9. Part of the impetus for the meeting was to help Authority staff clarify a definition in order to have a better footing with legislators in Washington as they work to parse out funds for broadband infrastructure.
Most of the Internet providers in Maine were represented and a lengthy discussion continued for the better part of 2 hours. The group ultimately vetted three potential standards: 10/1, 25/3, and 10/10. The governing rule states:
The Authority must base its criteria on the state of the market as well as the performance necessary to meet the current broadband needs of common applications and network services in use in the State.
The Telecommunication Association of Maine (TAM) indicated support for 10/1 service as did Consolidated Communications and Spectrum; the Island Institute supported a minimum of 10 Mbps upload speed, Maine Broadband Coalition Co-Chair Peggy Schaffer, OTELCO, and a citizen from Waldoboro suggested a 10/10 symmetrical bandwidth.
Authority member, Ralph Johnson is the Regional CIO at MaineHealth and made an economic development case for symmetrical bandwidth. He questioned whether Maine is building broadband for consumers or economic development. He felt that consumers – taking things FROM the Internet — could do with asymmetrical speed, but that in order for economic development to benefit, being able to send things upstream is critical.
Dr. Susan Woods is another member of the Board who founded of HiTecHiTouch, LLC, to advance health technology innovation, telehealth and virtual care, and digital inclusion. She noted that a minimum recommended connection for one person engaged in telemedicine with a healthcare provider is 15/5.
Once all discussion was complete, Authority Chair and University of Maine System CIO, Dick Thompson asked for a recommendation from the Board. Ralph Johnson moved, and had seconded, a 10/10 standard which failed with a 2 – 2 vote of the four Authority members present. Thompson then moved 10/1 and couldn’t get a second, and Johnson in an attempt at compromise, also failed to get a second on a 25/3 proposal.
While there was compelling testimony from all sides, it simply wasn’t enough to bring the attending Authority members to a recommendation. Heather Johnson, ConnectME Authority Director, is hoping for more input from providers, citizens, and any other stakeholders or interested parties. That input will be reviewed and discussed at the June 22 meeting of the ConnectME Authority.
Ultimately, should the Authority determine a new standard, by rule, there would be a 30 day period for additional public comment before the change could be enacted.
Important to Note
There is a distinct difference between the minimum standard for service and the build-to speeds set forth in the grant RFP. The threshold that the Board is trying to determine is the benchmark that designates who is considered unserved and therefore eligible for funding.
Because the Authority is empowered to carry out the state broadband policy, and one of the goals is to see that there is secure, reliable, competitive and sustainable forward-looking infrastructure that can meet future broadband needs, it is expected that the build-to requirements will look to the future. The current build-to standard is 10/10, it stands to reason that should the Authority set a new minimum standard, that the build-to standard will also increase to something more futureproof. For now, the minimum standard is the first step.
What are your thoughts?
What do you think the absolute minimum service standard should be? Should the requirement require symmetrical speeds? Contact Heather.Johnson@maine.gov, 207-624-9838 or Brooke.Johnson@maine.gov, 207-624-9849 before the June 22 meeting to share your thoughts.