FCC Broadband Speeds
The FCC has redefined broadband Internet speed as 25 Mbps or higher. Reuters

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday set a higher benchmark for what it considers broadband when it comes to measuring how many Americans get high-speed Internet service. Under the new definition, the minimum download speed for Internet to be considered broadband is now over six times the previous standard, last changed in 2010. The standard is now 25 Mbps for downloads, and 3 Mbps for uploads.

The change won't have any immediate impact on consumers, but it could affect the government's efforts to increase broadband penetration in underserved areas.

The move comes as no surprise, as FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler proposed earlier this month to raise the minimum benchmark for broadband from 4 Mbps download speed and 1 Mbps upload speed to the new standard. The faster speeds are meant to reflect changing Internet usage habits of Americans, who increasingly have more devices connected to the Web and use streaming services, such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.

The broadband standard also is used to guide policy surrounding broadband deployment throughout the U.S., especially in rural areas.

“Today’s report sets the standard for advanced telecommunications as 25 Mbps broadband service,” Wheeler said. “That leads to the follow-up question: Are those services being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion? Simply put, no.”

Under the new definition, the FCC found 17 percent of all Americans lack access to broadband, while 53 percent of rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service. Yet, even under the previous benchmark, 20 percent of rural Americans still lacked access to broadband service. The divide is even larger in tribal areas, where 63 percent lack access. In contrast, only 8 percent of urban dwellers in the U.S. lack access to broadband.

The FCC’s action comes following strong opposition from the cable lobby, which argued that the commission should retain the 2010 definition of broadband.

“Instead of an accurate assessment of America’s broadband marketplace and the needs and uses of consumers, the FCC action is industrial policy that is not faithful to Congress’ direction in Section 706 [of the Telecommunications Act of 1996] to assess the market, but a clear effort to justify and expand the bounds of the FCC's own authority,” the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said in response.

Despite the change, the definition may have a limited effect on Internet service providers, since it bears no regulatory effect on company offerings. However, that doesn’t mean the FCC can’t eventually step in. “Under the same statute that requires us to do this measurement, it says that if broadband is not being deployed quickly enough the FCC should take steps to hasten deployment,” an FCC representative said.

The benchmark change comes ahead of the FCC’s Feb. 26 vote on rules surrounding net neutrality, or how ISPs can be regulated regarding how data moves through their networks.