A divided Federal Communications Commission has concluded that broadband is being deployed on a “reasonable and timely basis,” although 18 million Americans, including 14.5 million people living in rural areas, lack access to wireline service.
“Available evidence demonstrates that the digital divide continues to narrow as more Americans than ever before have access to high-speed broadband,” states the report, endorsed by the agency's three Republican commissioners.
The report concluded that the number of Americans without access to fixed wireline internet service at speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream -- the current FCC definition of “broadband” dropped by more than 14% in 2018. The FCC also found that more than 85% of American could access fixed wireline service at speeds of at least 250 Mbps downstream and 25 Mbps upstream at the end of 2018, marking a 47% increase since 2017.
Democratic Commissioners Geoffrey Starks and Jessica Rosenworcel dissented from the report, arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed too many gaps in broadband coverage to justify the FCC's positive conclusions.
“When public health requires social distancing and even quarantine, closing the digital divide becomes central to our safety and economic security,” Starks wrote in a dissent. “But too many Americans cannot access online work, medical help, and distance learning because broadband is too expensive or not available.”
“This crisis is exposing what has long been obvious: too many Americans across the country do not have access to broadband,” Rosenworcel added. “In this disaster, Parking-Lot Wi-Fi has become a thing. So many people in so many cars sitting in front of shuttered libraries and coffee shops, just to pick up a free wi-fi signal. It is the only way they have to connect.”
Both also said the data the FCC relied on was questionable, noting the well-documented flaws in the current reporting system. Last August, the FCC voted to collect more precise data about broadband deployment from internet service providers.
But for the report released Friday, the FCC relied on broadband providers' statements about whether they offered service anywhere in a census block. If so, the agency considered service available throughout that census block.
That methodology “systematically overstates service across the country,” Rosenworcel stated.
Rosenworcel added that providers the FCC doesn't have a system to verify data submitted by providers, which has resulted in inaccuracies. Last year, the agency had to revise its broadband deployment report, due to faulty data from the company BarrierFree. That provider incorrectly reported in December 2017 that it offered fiber-to-the-home and fixed wireless service at speeds of nearly 1 GB to census blocks containing almost 62 million people.
Rosenworcel added that the FCC “fails to meaningfully discuss big issues that contribute to the digital divide,” including its price, affordability and digital literacy.
“If the agency is serious about living up to its duty under the law to report on the state of broadband in this country, these omissions render its conclusions suspect,” she wrote.
Dana Floberg, policy manager for advocacy group Free Press, added that the cost of broadband remains an obstacle to adoption, even in areas where service is available.
“This affordability digital divide goes far beyond the FCC's deployment report, with impacts far beyond rural areas,” Floberg says. She adds that even before the current unemployment crisis, sparked by the COVID-19 outbreak, around 70 million people who lived in an area with access to broadband didn't subscribe to the service.