Lobbyists for huge telecommunications companies such as AT&T, Verizon, and Windstream are fighting a proposed rule that would require telecoms to provide higher internet speeds in order to qualify for a rural broadband subsidy, Jon Brodkin reports for Ars Technica.

The Federal Communications Commission announced in December that it would scrap the 4G LTE rural subsidy plan and instead launch a $9 billion fund to bring 5G to rural areas. The 5G plan, called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, plans to offer three tiers: a baseline tier with 25 megabytes per second download speed and 3 Mbps upload, an "above-baseline" tier with 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up, and a "gigabit performance" tier with 1Gbps down and 50 Mbps up, Brodkin reports.

Though most ISPs seem fine with the requirements for the bottom and top tiers, "it's the above-baseline tier of 100Mbps/20Mbps that providers object to," Brodkin reports. "They either want the FCC to lower that tier's upload speeds or create an additional tier that would be faster than baseline but slower than above-baseline. Companies pushing lower standards are trying to ensure that ISPs offering much slower speeds can get a large slice of that federal funding without making significant network upgrades."

According to a Dec. 23 comment filed with the FCC, the lobbying group USTelecom and other major telecoms proposed that the above-baseline tier's upload target should be 10 Mbps instead of 20 Mbps. They said that 20 Mbps upload speeds wouldn't benefit rural consumers much, and would make a negligible difference in HD streaming, video conferencing and gaming. They also said that lowering the target speed would incentivize telecoms to build out additional broadband and would save the rural subsidy fund money. However, Brodkin notes that the argument doesn't hold water, since advertised broadband speeds are "basically the best-case scenario" and consumers often see much slower speeds.

The Dec. 23 filing is the latest in a flurry of such filings. In October, AT&T filed a request for a slower tier of 50/6 Mbps up, and essentially advised "that the FCC should direct a larger share of the rural funding toward ISPs offering slower speeds," Brodkin reports. On Dec. 13, AT&T and other ISPs requested a new tier with 50/5 Mbps speeds and urged the FCC to prioritize lower-speed tiers. Such speeds would be a step back from what the 4G LTE program usually funds; more than half of the funds awarded are for 100/20 Mbps projects.

Notably, two groups representing smaller internet service providers (the Rural Broadband Association and ACA Connects) urged the FCC to reject proposals to lower speeds in a filing on Dec. 6, Brodkin reports.

The differing proposals reflect a schism in rural broadband providers: rural telephone and electric cooperatives are responsible for building out almost three-quarters of the fast fiber-optic broadband in the rural U.S., but the much slower Digital Subscriber Line broadband service, which transfers internet signals via existing telephone lines, remains the most common type of rural internet service. One big reason: big telecoms companies lobbied for and won major federal contracts to build rural broadband, then saved money by using the slower DSL technology instead of laying fiber-optic cable.