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FCC: Digital Divide Continues to Close

The FCC says the digital divide is continuing to close and advanced telecommunications continues to be deployed to all Americans on a reasonable and timely basis. 

That is according to the FCC's latest Sec. 706 report*, the annual Broadband Deployment Report report issued Friday (April 24). The commission vote to issue the report was 3-2, with the Democrats dissenting. 

Related: FCC Launches Latest Broadband Deployment Report

The deployment to all Americans becomes increasingly important in the time of COVID-19.

The report showed continued declines in the number of people lacking fixed terrestrial broadband of at least 25 Mbps downstream/3 upstream, the current high-speed benchmark, down 14% between 2017 and 2018. 

On the mobile side, the number of people without access to 4G LTE mobile broadband of at least 10/3 Mbps was down a whopping 54% between 2017 and 2018. 

The FCC also said that the vast majority (85%) of Americans have access to fixed terrestrial broadband of 250/25 as of 2018, which was up 47% from 2017, with rural access to 250/25 more than tripling. 

“Under my leadership, the FCC’s top priority is to close the digital divide, and I’m proud of the progress that we have made,” said FCC chairman Ajit Pai.  

"Given the compelling evidence, the report finds for the third consecutive year that advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis," the commission concluded. 

Traditionally, Democrats on the commission have argued that the report should not conclude that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely manner until all Americans have access. If the FCC concludes it is not reasonable and timely, it is empowered to regulate to make it so. 

Under Pai, the conclusion has been that while not mission accomplished, the progress toward universal deployment has been reasonable and timely.  "We find substantial support in the record for continuing our use of a progress-based approach,": said the report. 

The FCC declined to include "data allowances and affordability" in its assessment of deployment. Saying it was reiterating the 2019 report, the FCC said that “[w]hile factors such as data allowances or pricing may affect consumers’ use of advanced telecommunications capabilities or influence decisions concerning the purchase of these services in the first instance, such considerations do not affect the underlying determination of whether advanced telecommunications capability has been deployed and made available to customers in a given area."

One caveat to the numbers is that both the FCC and Congress agree that the FCC needs to collect better data on deployment, which the commission is in the process of doing. 

“From 2016 to 2018, the number of Americans without access to 25/3 Mbps fixed broadband service fell by more than 30%. 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," he said. "Having grown up in rural Kansas, I have a deep commitment to expanding broadband to all corners of the country. That’s why we’ve taken aggressive steps to remove regulatory barriers to broadband deployment and reform our Universal Service Fund programs. But despite these gains, the job isn’t done—we’ll continue our work until all Americans have access to digital opportunity. In particular, I look forward to commencing Phase I of our Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction in October, which will bring high-speed broadband to millions of currently unserved Americans.” 

Commissioner Jessica Rosenwocel's dissent made that point clear. 

"We are in the middle of a pandemic. So much of modern life has migrated online. As a result, it has become painfully clear there are too many people in the United States who lack access to broadband. 

"In fact, if this crisis has revealed anything, it is the hard truth that the digital divide is very real and very big. But you’ll find no evidence acknowledging that in today’s Broadband Progress Report from the Federal Communications Commission. Instead, you’ll find a glowing assessment that all is well. According to this rosy report the nation’s broadband efforts are all good. They are proceeding in a reasonable and timely fashion and they are reaching all Americans. This is just not right." 

Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly did not see the report in quite as rosy hues as the chairman. "The finding in this year’s report—that advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion—is undoubtedly accurate. Nonetheless, it bears repeating (for the third year in a row) that this finding does not suggest that we have succeeded in our mission to bring broadband access to all Americans, and I personally will not rest until that work is done." 

"To say that advanced broadband services are being deployed to all Americans on a 'reasonable and timely basis' is to ignore the rapidly changing reality of how Americans work, live, learn, socialize, and receive healthcare — all through home broadband connections," said Benton Senior Fellow Jonathan Sallet. "The FCC’s analysis is woefully inadequate: It counts broadband as being present where the FCC knows that it is not present; it recognizes soon-to-be-obsolete 25/3 networks as “advanced” when they are not; and it fails to consider that Americans in the current crisis have dramatically changed the importance of home broadband connections (including the adequacy of upstream speeds in a moment of videoconferences galore). Now is the time for the FCC to face up to what the nation now knows: everyone in the United States needs to be able to use High-Performance Broadband. 

“This report is out of touch with what is happening in America," said Josh Stager, senior counsel at New America’s Open Technology Institute. "The ongoing pandemic has laid bare a stark reality: millions of people do not have reliable or affordable access to the internet. This problem actively undermines our efforts to combat COVID-19, including stay-at-home orders that wrongly assume people have home access to online services."

* Sec. 706b of the Telecommunications Act to annually “initiate a notice of inquiry concerning the availability of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans (including, in particular, elementary and secondary schools and classrooms)" to determine “whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”  If it is not, the FCC “shall take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.”