By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. regulators on Thursday raised the standard for high-speed Internet, voting that only connections with download speeds of 25 megabits per second or faster will qualify as broadband, meaning fewer parts of the United States have broadband access.
The change in the Federal Communications Commission's definition of broadband, previously a download speed of at least 4 megabits per second (Mbps), means nearly a fifth of Americans and more than half of those living in rural areas lack access to high-speed Internet.
The change, opposed by Internet service providers and Republican FCC commissioners, is not expected to immediately influence how competitive the FCC formally views the broadband market. But it could give the agency more of a bully pulpit to push Internet service providers to increase connection speeds and support competitors formed by municipalities.
The new definition is also likely to give new ammunition to critics of the pending $45 billion merger of Comcast Corp and Time Warner Cable Inc as cable companies emerge as the dominant competitors to offer such speeds.
The FCC is expected to use the new definition to guide how they distribute subsidies to encourage broadband deployment and upgrades to networks. Some observers also said the agency could also use it in their work to prevent states from blocking cities' efforts to build municipal broadband networks.
The FCC could also press Comcast to commit to faster speeds in its Internet Essentials program, a discounted Internet service for low-income families, if they decide to use it as part of the merger review, analysts said.
The FCC has not typically used broadband reports, such as the one that set the new definition, for punitive measures or stricter regulations, said experts.
Such reports, required by Congress, are meant to ensure high-speed Internet is rolled out to all Americans "in a reasonable and timely fashion." The FCC will now collect comments on how it should spur faster deployment.
The FCC also voted on Thursday on new requirements for wireless carriers to better locate callers who dial 911 on cellphones indoors.
Nationwide carriers will have to help 911 dispatchers locate, within 50 feet, 40 percent of wireless 911 calls within two years and 80 percent of such calls within six years.
(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Additional reporting by Diane Bartz)