Internet speed now has to be a lot faster in order to qualify as advanced broadband in the U.S. — five times faster than high-speed broadband in Canada.
The U.S. telecommunications regulator announced this week that in order to meet its new "broadband benchmark," an internet service now has to be able to support downloads of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and uploads of 3 Mbps.
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The Federal Communications Commission uses the definition to measure the proportion of Americans who have access to broadband speeds needed to support high-quality video and other common uses of the internet. For example, Netflix recommends speeds of at least 25 Mbps per stream for Ultra HD quality video.
Previously, the FCC had defined broadband as 4 Mbps downloads and 1 Mbps uploads.
That target, set in 2010, was "dated and inadequate for evaluating whether advanced broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a timely way," the FCC said in a news release explaining its update.
The new U.S. targets don't please everyone — the National Cable and Telecommunications Association representing major internet service providers said the regulator had "arbitrarily chosen a definition of broadband … that ignores how millions of consumers currently access the internet" and isn't an "accurate assessment of America's broadband marketplace and the needs and uses of consumers."
'It's extremely embarrassing'
What's clear is the new U.S. broadband target is much faster than Canada's.
Canada still defines broadband as providing download speeds of at least 1.5 Mbps. In 2011, Canada's telecommunications regulator, the CRTC, set its national target speed for broadband internet service for all Canadians at 5 Mbps per second for downloads and 1 Mbps per second for uploads by 2015.
Most urban Canadians have access to much faster speeds than that, but many rural Canadians still don't. Industry Canada expects 98 per cent of Canadians to have access to its target speed by 2019, modest as they are compared with the U.S. targets.
"It's extremely embarrassing," said John Lawford, executive director and general counsel for the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which advocates on behalf of Canadian consumers.
"These are laughable because of the types of services that people are using now," he added. He said the download targets set by the Canadian government "just don't support" the speeds needed for high-quality video.
He expressed concern that with the new U.S. targets, Canada is losing ground compared with its main trading partner.
Josh Tabish, campaigns manager for Open Media, a Vancouver-based group that advocates for internet users, has similar concerns.
"The U.S. is showing significant commitment towards developing faster and cheaper internet for their citizens that Canada's government simply isn't showing," said Tabish. "They've set much more ambitious targets."
In particular, Canada has "really fallen behind" on upload speeds needed to take advantage of cloud computing services that let people access software and files stored on the internet instead of their own computers.
"This is just a truth of the way most people are now doing business," he added.
Canadian geography a challenge, government says
Jake Enwright, press secretary for Industry Minister James Moore, suggested that the U.S. target wouldn't be realistic or affordable for Canada, given our population density.
"The fact is that [cellular] towers can deliver 5 Mbps, whereas 25 Mbps must be delivered through fibre-optic cable," he said. "Running fibre-optic cable to rural and remote regions of Canada represents a very great challenge given the costs associated with doing that and just given the vast distance that those cables would have to run."
He added that 5 Mbps should be fast enough to provide Canadians with internet applications such as cloud computing, distance learning and YouTube videos.
Canada's targets do make the population of Canada look relatively well-connected. According to Industry Canada, over 99 per cent of Canadian households have access to "basic broadband" of at least 1.5 Mbps. And by 2019, 98 per cent of Canadian households will have access to "high-speed" broadband download speeds of at least 5 Mbps.
In July 2014, the federal government announced it was committing $305 million to help boost internet speeds to that level for 280,000 Canadians, by providing funding to help private internet providers improve internet speeds in rural areas through its Connecting Canadians program. Applications closed this past Jan. 12. Successful projects will be announced this spring and must be completed by March 31, 2019.
Five megabits per second isn't fast enough to get similar subsidies from the U.S. government — the FCC announced in December it wouldn't offer funding to internet providers unless they promised download speeds of at least 10 Mbps.
Under its new 2015 benchmark, the FCC says 55 million Americans or 17 per cent of the population lack access to advanced broadband, and more than half of rural Americans do. What's more, 35 per cent of schools lack access to fibre networks "capable of delivering the advanced broadband required to support today's digital learning tools."
Tabish said the new targets will change Americans' expectations of internet speeds.
"Customers will know that they can do better," he said.
Unlike the U.S., Canada has no national broadband plan and does not track broadband access or set benchmarks the same way.
However, both Lawford and Tabish hope Canada will update its broadband definitions and targets later this year when it launches a hearing on basic universal telecommunications services.