The FCC recently released its annual broadband deployment report, and said the numbers show the digital divide continues to close. Critics claim otherwise.
The FCC says the report revealed the number of Americans lacking access to fixed terrestrial broadband service at 25/3 Mbps continues to decline, by more than 14 percent in 2018. The number of Americans without access to 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile broadband with a median speed of 10/3 Mbps, based on Ookla data, declined approximately 54 percent between 2017 and 2018. And the vast majority of Americans—more than 85 percent—now have access to fixed terrestrial broadband service at 250/25 Mbps, a 47 percent increase since 2017, concludes the report.
“From 2016 to 2018, the number of Americans without access to 25/3 Mbps fixed broadband service fell by more than 30 percent,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “And in 2018 and 2019, the United States set consecutive records for new fiber deployment, with the number of homes passed by fiber increasing by 5.9 million and 6.5 million, respectively.”
The Commission cited the broadband industry’s approximately $80 billion investment in network infrastructure in 2018, for the improvement, noting it’s the highest annual amount in at least the last decade. In 2019, fiber broadband networks became available to roughly 6.5 million additional homes, the largest one-year increase ever, with smaller providers accounting for 25 percent of these new fiber connections, according to the agency.
Indeed, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who voted for the item, credited the industry for the progress, noting: “America’s broadband builders are now trenching conduit, pulling fiber, and installing new high-speed cell sites at an unprecedented clip. While we are far from the finish line, the significant progress we’re making in closing the digital divide is welcome news.”
However, the Democrats on the Commission both dissented from the report. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called the document “a glowing assessment” of the state of broadband in America that’s “baffling.” The pandemic has highlighted the effect of the digital divide, she says, and it’s “very real and very big.”
As one example, Rosenworcel points to parking lot WiFi, which has “become a thing” in the disaster, she explains. “So many people in so many cars sitting in front of shuttered libraries and coffee shops, just to pick up a free WiFi signal. It is the only way they have to connect.”
Critics like Jonathan Sallet, a senior fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, call the research “woefully inadequate.” The former FCC General Counsel ticks off problems, saying the report “counts broadband as being present where the Commission knows that it’s not and recognizes soon-to-be-obsolete 25/3 networks as ‘advanced’ when they are not.” His colleague, Gigi Sohn, a Benton Foundation Senior Fellow and aide to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, says the report relies on data from broadband internet access providers that “members of Congress and the agency itself admit grossly overstates the number of Americans with access to broadband.”