- Federal Communications Commission (FCC) leaders are sharply divided on the accuracy of the latest Broadband Deployment Report, which showed a continued reduction in the digital divide. The report found the number of Americans lacking access to fixed broadband dropped 14% in 2018, with less than 18 million people now lacking broadband access.
- More than 85% of Americans now have access to fixed broadband service at 250/25 Mbps, which represents a 47% increase since 2017, FCC reported. It also found that millions of new homes now have fiber connections, and the number of people without access to 4G mobile broadband with a median speed of 10/3 Mbps declined approximately 54% between 2017 and 2018.
- Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks both released dissenting statements, criticizing the data the report is based on as inadequate for a true reflection of broadband deployment. Meanwhile, fellow commissioner Brendan Carr said the report shows "significant progress" toward closing the digital divide, a view shared by FCC Chair Ajit Pai. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said in a statement it shows progress, but he criticized the "extremely flawed" data.
Despite the optimistic report, this is not the first time the FCC has come under fire for its data collection practices, which have been criticized repeatedly as inadequate.
Congress tried to find a legislative fix when it passed the Broadband DATA Act earlier this year. That bipartisan legislation, which built on prior bills introduced in both the House and Senate, directed the FCC to collect more granular data from wired, fixed-wireless, satellite and mobile broadband providers. This report was not governed by those new requirements as data collection was underway prior to the release of the Broadband DATA Act.
Currently, internet service providers and carriers can say an entire census block is covered, if they are able to serve one address within that block, the report notes. Former FCC Counselor Gigi Sohn released a statement to say that loophole in the report "defies reality" and "grossly overstates" offerings.
It has also created major discrepancies between the FCC's data and data collected by outside organizations. Research from BroadbandNow earlier this year estimated 42 million residents lack access to broadband, while Microsoft released data last September that found that 162 million people do not have internet available at broadband speeds.
The massive differences in reporting harm data credibility, advocates argued, saying the federal process needs a total reboot. "What we know is that it doesn't matter if either number is true, we know it's just wrong," Francella Ochillo, executive director of internet equity advocacy group Next Century Cities, told Smart Cities Dive. "I don't know any scientific study that has that type of spread that thinks the results are accurate."
The FCC and federal government have been moderately working to expand internet access. Last February, the White House released its multi-agency American Broadband Initiative (ABI), which detailed its strategy to expand broadband deployment, while the FCC has distributed funds through its Connect America initiative to bolster service.
But the digital divide is still very apparent, leading some to call for local governments to treat internet as a public utility like electricity, water and gas. Meanwhile, in a search for solutions, Amazon is among those making moves toward launching satellites into space to create a global broadband internet network.
Sohn and the dissenting commissioners said the new coronavirus (COVID-19) has further exposed the digital divide in the United States, as speeds have slowed amid millions of people working and learning remotely. "In this disaster, Parking-Lot Wi-Fi has become a thing," Rosenworcel said in her statement. "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."
State and local governments could step up to strengthen broadband offerings in underserved areas, as they are more aware of where the gaps are and what could be done to fill them, Ochillo said.
"Every state and every community is going to have unique needs and also unique obstacles," she said. "I think states are in a really good position to get some sort of ongoing discussions with municipalities to find out what they need and how they can be a broker between the federal government and the municipalities that are still waiting."