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FCC broadband standard from one extreme to the other

By 21 July 2010 13 Comments

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?

13 Comments »

  • Wes Felter said:

    Hey, the FCC decided that everybody needs HDTV, so why not 4 Mbps “HD broadband”?

  • George Ou (author) said:

    If the FCC had the power to print money (which is a tax on the poor and middle class via inflation), then they’d actually have the power to implement their “HD broadband” for every home in the country. Doesn’t matter if you live in the middle of nowhere and you’re wealthy and it costs half a million dollars to wire your home because you now have a new “right” to broadband.

  • Inyou Crash said:

    I know people that play games over satellite. While I know that FPS is impossible, I feel that this qualifies for broadband.

  • George Ou (author) said:

    FCC could have solved this problem with different grades of broadband. Say, basic/mainstream/advanced.

  • Brett Glass said:

    Here’s a question. As we all know, the FCC never voted on a declarative rulemaking or order that changed the definition of “broadband.” Doesn’t its sudden change in its definition (which CREATED a large new group of people who suddenly do not have broadband, clearing the way for claims that regulation is needed) therefore violate the Administrative Procedure Act? (Note that the Commission has already cited the new definition in its Section 706 report.)

  • Paul William Tenny said:

    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.

    I clocked the first minute of an episode of Lost (360P) at 752.7kbps for the first 60 seconds (not including the leading commercial or buffering). It peaked at 1.14mbps.

    Looked decent enough, too bad it would murder my 17GB/month cap.

    Netflix though says you want to have 5mbps or better for their HD streams. An old blog post from 2008 says their first generation encoding rates ranged from 500kbps to 3400kbps. Second generation using AVC1 tops out at 1500kbps, with HD topping at 3800kbps “which extends their accessibility down to lower home broadband connections.”

    3.71mbps…. “lower home broadband connections”.

    I’m not going to argue the overall point, but it’s not like there aren’t uses out there for connections faster than 3mbps. And I’m pretty confident we’re going to be seeing more of this, not less.

    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?

    Dunno. Ask em.

  • George Ou (author) said:

    @Paul William Tenny

    You’re measuring the buffer ahead burst speed and not the actual bitrate of the video. You’ll notice that hulu bursts with higher bandwidth for several seconds and then uses no bandwidth for another several seconds. If you average it out, it’s around 500 Kbps. YouTube 480P videos are 660 Kbps. I measured by downloading the file and then looking at it with MediaCoder which gives you the detailed specs on the video.

    US broadband providers (the wired ones) usually don’t have anything less than 150 GB or 250 GB cap or a soft cap.

  • Paul William Tenny said:

    You’re measuring the buffer ahead burst speed and not the actual bitrate of the video. You’ll notice that hulu bursts with higher bandwidth for several seconds and then uses no bandwidth for another several seconds. If you average it out, it’s around 500 Kbps.

    George,

    Thanks for replying.

    I waited until the video began playing and then measured it for 60 seconds. The average was 752.7kbps (http://pwt.privatepaste.com/download/5f5b3180e5 — this will display a screenshot, not download anything despite its misleading URL). That’s well past buffering and if it includes the no-transfer period you described (which I don’t recall seeing at all), then my number is even lower than it should be.

    It’s not that much of a difference but I do believe the speed I measured is more accurate.

    And I notice you didn’t really acknowledge what I said about Netflix. I understand that one deviation doesn’t bust a theory, but it does kind of rain on your premise a bit. Netflix says their streaming app will only give you the highest bitrate for HD content if your connection (which it tests before streaming) clears their requirement by 40%. So a 5mbps connection that can’t hit and sustain 5mbps is going to result in less than optimal quality, and the FCC’s new standard is below that even now.

    My point being that you’d think the FCC knows of applications that 4mbps won’t satisfy and they are well aware that any standard should be good for today and the near future as well.

    I would be pretty happy with the old standard of 3mbps, which is what my county used when it put a network plan together and applied for federal funds. If they have to kick it up to 4, I won’t be shedding any tears when people with cable are out there with 20mbps or more.

  • George Ou (author) said:

    Paul, one minute of measurement is not sufficient for an average number when there is a rapid burst at the beginning of the video. What you need to do is take something like a 5 min clip and measure the whole file.

    As for the 4 Mbps standard, why not 40 Mbps to support Blu-ray quality over the Internet? Why not 400 Mbps? These are just arbitrary numbers which is fine until you decide that you want to set it as the MINIMUM standard. 4 Mbps to some home that’s way out in the boonies for someone who chooses to build a million dollar house 10 miles from civilization seems like an awfully expensive entitlement.

  • Paul William Tenny said:

    George,

    If you’re correct, then there’s only 200kbps worth of buffering going on in the first minute of that video, and yet you call it “rapid burst”. You say 500kbps, I say 700kbps. I don’t see how you get from 500 to 700 if there’s a “rapid burst” amount of buffering going on. At best that’s a very minimal amount of buffering that never even peaked on my connection (that screenshot shows it peaking at 1.1mbps, not even the 1.5 my connection will happily do).

    If you’ve got data that falsifies mine, I’d sure like to see it.

    As for the minimum number, that’s the second or third time you’ve flat out ignored my example.

    Netflix HD at the best quality (where the actual bitrate of the video falls within the new FCC guideline) doesn’t even work at 4mbps because it’s not fast enough. That’s a real world application that people are using right this second, not some token social video sharing site with low traffic and abnormally high bitrates.

    The fact is that for some of today’s applications, 3mbps isn’t always cutting it. You picked some applications that make it look like overkill, but all you proved is that it’s overkill for those applications. There are clearly others out there that can, will, and are currently using far more than just 3mbps.

    4 Mbps to some home that’s way out in the boonies for someone who chooses to build a million dollar house 10 miles from civilization seems like an awfully expensive entitlement.

    The people being left behind are not millionaires. The people who will benefit from this are not rich isolationists who want to hoard their money while the government pays for everything. And you know that anyone who gets broadband via a government initiative is probably going to wait several generations before it sees a significant upgrade.

    Please don’t insult me with talking points about entitlement. If broadband were an entitlement, my community would not be sitting here with nothing over two decades after DSL was invented.

  • George Ou (author) said:

    http://www.digitalsociety.org/2010/03/fcc-should-consider-passive-network-monitoring/

    See Figure 1. Hulu.com capped their typical bursts at .6 Mbps with a little under and a little over. Near the end of the video, there was nothing happening because it was already buffered.

    Netflix does offer their 720P “HD” to users who peak at 2.5 Mbps (3 Mbps DSL service). It could get as high as 4 Mbps but it doesn’t have to. But again, that’s a PEAK value and not a minimum value.

    Speaking for America, we largely have an adoption issue and not an availability issue. Most people who don’t have broadband in this country have access to it and they’re largely the lower income levels. The rural areas aren’t necessarily poor and we often have people who own half million dollar ranches who get more in subsidies from the tax payers than they pay for their wired telephone service. There are places where we have people whose phone lines cost the tax payers nearly $17K a year.

    These aren’t talking points and your calling them that and calling them insulting isn’t going to intimidate me from stating the facts. I’ll call an entitlement an entitlement but you’re free to disagree.