FCC broadband standard from one extreme to the other
Swinging from one extreme to the other, the FCC majority has unilaterally decided that I am technically no longer a broadband subscriber since they’ve declared 4 Mbps the new minimum broadband standard. The new standard has made some like Mike Masnick happy (even though he admits that he doesn’t buy 4 Mbps), but there are some serious problems with this new minimum speed.
It was clear that the old 200 Kbps up/down for one home in a zipcode was insufficient, but to implement a broadband standard exceeds the capability of nearly every content or application provider in the entire world with the exception of a few premium content simply swings too far to the other extreme.
One of the likely explanations of this unreasonable new water mark is the pervasive myth that broadband lags applications and content when the reality is that it’s the other way around. For the vast majority of video content sites including the most popular and most capable site YouTube.com, the typical video stream is “360P” (360 vertical pixels of resolution) and has a typical bitrate of 330 Kbps (0.33 Mbps). Some of the content is available in an “enhanced” 480P format which usually have bitrates of 500 Kbps to 660 Kbps. Hulu.com for example allocates 500 Kbps to their higher end 480P mode though they hope the typical user won’t be smart enough to change from the default 360P mode. If a user is lucky and finds stable 720P content on YouTube (note that Google often can’t guarantee a stable 720P stream), then they’ll be treated to 2.25 Mbps of video and audio content.
Once in a while when they can find a 1080P stream, then they’re treated to 3.75 Mbps video/audio content which is the maximum bitrate you can find on YouTube which surpasses the capability of every other video sharing site in the world. The misleading “4096P” capability seems to top out at 6.445 Mbps but it’s almost impossible to find anything above 1080P on YouTube and it’s unlikely that will change anytime soon since greater than 1080P cameras and Google has a hard enough time serving the occasional 720P stream. Even in Japan where 100 Mbps broadband service (advertised speeds) is common, their content seems to be even stuck with even less bandwidth because server capacity in Japan is more expensive than the US. Even the vast majority of premium paid content where consumers pay top dollars for content seem to be stuck in the 2 to 4 Mbps range. It still frustrates me to no end that a $45 UFC pay per view still streams at a maximum of 1 Mbps of bandwidth and completely unusable both times that I tried the service.
Some people have suggested that full screen 1080P whiteboards must be supported for distance learning, but even that’s misguided because fullscreen whiteboards can be supported with 50 Kbps or less bandwidth and still have perfect clarity and full color animations. The only reason it might requires 4 Mbps is when the wrong technology optimized for live action video is used to encode vector based whiteboards. This is why I have argued that throwing bandwidth at the problem is not the solution because true innovation happens when bandwidth is used more intelligently.
At a time when the maximum capability of content anywhere in the world is stuck in the sub 4 Mbps range and probably average less than 1 Mbps, the FCC has decided to set 4 Mbps as the bare minimum standard for broadband access. But if Hulu works well with 0.5 Mbps and looks decent at full screen, why is the FCC setting 4 Mbps as the minimum standard?