FCC: Broadband Deployment is Reasonable, Timely...Again

The FCC has approved its revised draft of the 2019 Broadband Deployment Report, which concludes that advanced telecommunications is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. It is the second year in a row the FCC under chair Ajit Pai has drawn that conclusion.

That did not sit well with dissenting Democrats--the vote was 3-2 along party lines--who pointed to the millions still without access to the key advanced telecommunications service--high-speed broadband.

Congress mandated the annual report and empowers the FCC to regulate to insure that deployment is, indeed, timely and reasonable. Previous Democratic FCC's have failed to reach that conclusion, but the commission switched gears under the current Republican majority.

According to the report, it based that conclusion of reasonable and timely on data that showed:

1. "The number of Americans lacking access to a terrestrial fixed broadband connection meeting the FCC’s benchmark of at least 25 Mbps/3 Mbps has dropped from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 21.3 million Americans at the end of 2017, a decrease of more than 18%.

2. "The majority of those gaining access to such connections, approximately 4.3 million, are in rural America.

3. "Higher-speed services are being deployed at a rapid rate as well: The number of Americans with access to at least 250 Mbps/25 Mbps broadband grew in 2017 by more than 36%, to 191.5 million.

4. "The number of rural Americans with access to such broadband increased by 85.1% in 2017.

5. "Broadband providers large and small deployed fiber networks to 5.9 million new homes in 2018, the largest number ever recorded.

6. "Capital expenditures by broadband providers increased in 2017, reversing the declines of both 2015 and 2016."

The FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau had released the revised draft of the report at the beginning of this month after problems were unearthed with the original figures, but maintained it still shows significant closing of the digital divide.

The original draft was first released Feb. 19 accompanied by fanfare from Pai on the figures showing that divide closing. But those numbers were based on drastically overstated deployment data by one company.

Barrier Communications had said that it reached almost 1.5 million census blocks with fiber-to-the-home and fixed wireless service when the company had simply submitted as its coverage area as every census block in the eight states where it offered service to any census block.

The original draft showed that "the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection meeting the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps has dropped by over 25%, from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017." Free Press, which identified the Barrier error, said with the numbers un-inflated by Barrier, there is still a decline, but to 21.3 million, not the claimed 19.4 million.

But Pai still saw that as a reason to deem deployment as reasonable and timely. “We’re pleased that the FCC’s policy of making deployment data open and transparent to the public resulted in this error being discovered," he said at the time. "Fortunately, the new data doesn’t change the report’s fundamental conclusion: We are closing the digital divide."

Pai, when he was a commissioner in the minority under FCC chair Tom Wheeler, regularly objected to the FCC's conclusion that because all Americans did not yet have broadband, that it was not being deployed in a reasonable and timely way.

Senior Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel, who dissented from the report's findings, said the report deserved a failing grade, particularly given that it is based on data she says is flawed, including "the embarrassing fumble" of releasing the original draft report with incorrect numbers that inflated deployment.

"It is simply not credible for the Federal Communications Commission to clap its hands
and pronounce our broadband job done—and yet that is exactly what it does in this report today," she said. "By determining that under the law broadband deployment is reasonable and timely for all Americans, we not only fall short of our statutory responsibility, we show a cruel disregard for those who the digital age has left behind."

"The 2019 Broadband Deployment Report reaches the wrong conclusion," said commissioner Geoffrey Starks in a lengthy dissent. "According to the report, the digital divide has narrowed substantially over the past two years and broadband is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis. The rosy picture the report paints about the status of broadband deployment is fundamentally at odds with reality."

Starks evoked the Bush Administration's premature Iraq war call in saying the job was hardly done. "While I would like to be able to celebrate along with the FCC’s majority, our broadband deployment mission is not yet accomplished....Surprisingly, the conclusion in the report didn’t change. In fact, very little in the report changed. It’s incredible to me that an error this large – approximately 62 million in overstated broadband connections – didn’t materially change the report."

The Republican FCC was not overtly declaring victory, but they were declaring healthy progress. Republicans have long argued that the "reasonable and timely" test is about such progress toward a universal service goal--the "Rome wasn't built in a day" view--not about declaring failure so long as every American does not have high-speed broadband. 

"There is an old joke about a drunk man searching for his keys under a streetlight and when asked if that’s where he lost them, he answers, ‘No, but this is where the light is.’ Unfortunately, we can’t make light of the FCC’s latest broadband report which arrives at a crucial conclusion using, by its own admission, flawed data," said Benton Foundation executive director Adrienne Furniss. "Many may argue that the FCC came to the wrong conclusion; others will say that it is correct. But the point is: How can the FCC come to any conclusion when it knows the information it is basing its decision on is flawed?"

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has conceded the FCC needs better deployment data, and many in Congress are trying to find legislative ways to make that happen. 

“While we continue to be concerned that the FCC’s data collection methods result in overstated claims of broadband availability, we appreciate the Commission’s continued commitment to this issue and the need for swift action to bridge the rural broadband gap," said Connect Americans Now Executive Director Richard Cullen. "By the FCC’s own estimation, more than 21 million Americans lack access to broadband. For the majority of those living in rural America, this problem persists because traditional solutions such as fiber are too expensive to deploy to their communities and affordable wireless solutions like TV white spaces technology continue to be held back by outdated regulatory barriers." 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.