The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday sharply revised its benchmark definition of broadband Internet service. The new definition increases download speeds to more than six times faster than the previous standard, set more than four years ago.
The commission’s move was expected, after Thomas Wheeler, the chairman, had proposed the faster speed standard earlier this month. The impact of the new definition is uncertain, but the standard does guide policy on matters like the national deployment of broadband service, particularly in rural areas.
The new benchmark standard on speed could also spill over into the current weighing of new rules intended to maintain an open Internet, or net neutrality — the concept that Internet traffic should be open and treated equally. How access speeds can be managed and priced by the major Internet service providers — cable television and telecommunications companies — is the central issue in the open Internet policy debate. The commission is scheduled to vote on open Internet regulations on Feb. 26.
The new broadband benchmark sets downloads at a speed of 25 megabits a second and uploads of 3 megabits a second. The previous standard was a download speed of 4 megabits a second and an upload speed of 1 megabit a second.
The faster standard, according to a report led by Mr. Wheeler, is needed to keep up with the rising demands of American households. They increasingly use several Internet connected devices and use data-streaming video services like Netflix. The report found that 53 percent of rural Americans — 22 million people — do not have Internet access at the 25-3 level. By contrast, only 8 percent of urban Americans lack access to 25-3 broadband.
The debate over a new speed standard for broadband service mirrors the lobbying battle lines over net neutrality. The big Internet content companies including Google, Facebook and Netflix favor strong action by the F.C.C., while the cable and telecommunications companies want the F.C.C. to refrain.
In a filing with the commission last week, Matthew A. Brill, counsel for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, called the 25-3 standard “arbitrary and capricious.” He termed the assumptions behind the new standard as “hypotheticals” that “dramatically exaggerate the amount of bandwidth needed by the typical broadband user.” Mr. Brill also urged the commission to make sure a new benchmark would not have a wider regulatory impact.
Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, whose members include the major Internet content companies, took a very different stance in his recent filing with the commission. The appropriate policy goal, Mr. Beckerman wrote, was “broadband abundance — the expansion of truly high-speed broadband services across the country.”
Higher access speeds, he wrote, led to a “virtuous circle” of innovation, new services and fresh demand from customers, which in turn fuels economic growth. Revenue from streaming videos, according to Mr. Beckerman, citing industry research, jumped by 175 percent between 2010 and 2013, from $1.86 billion to $5.12 billion.