- A new report approved along party lines by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finds that "the nation’s digital divide is narrowing" and more Americans have access to broadband internet. However, commission Democrats have criticized the findings, saying they rely on inaccurate maps.
- The report says that the number of Americans who do not have fixed broadband of at least 25 Mbps/3 Mpbs, the FCC’s benchmark for high-speed internet, dropped from 26.1 million Americans in 2016 to 21.3 million in 2017, an 18% decrease. A majority of those with new access were in rural areas.
- In a dissent, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, D, said it was "simply not credible" for the FCC to "pronounce our broadband job done." The report, Rosenworcel said, deserves a "failing grade" because it relies on "data we know is wrong."
Today the @FCC released a report concluding that our #broadband job is done. This will come as news to millions and millions of Americans who are stuck on the wrong side of the #digitaldivide.— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) May 29, 2019
This report deserves a failing grade.
The annual report is part of the FCC’s mission to deliver broadband to all Americans "on a reasonable and timely basis," and is meant to guide the body’s work going forward. The top-line findings approved by Republicans are encouraging. The report found that the number of Americans with access to at least 250 Mbps/25 Mbps broadband grew more than 36% in 2017, including an 85% increase in rural areas. Broadband providers were also spending more in 2017 to improve service, after two years of declining spending.
In a statement, Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr said the report "contains more good news," although he admitted that "we have much more work left to do" to fully close the digital divide.
However, some Democrats say the report is built on faulty data and does not really reflect how many Americans lack broadband access. As CNET explains, the FCC relies on census block reporting from broadband providers; if service is available in one part of a census block, the report counts the entire block as having broadband. That can be especially problematic in rural areas, where census blocks reflect a few homes spread out over a wide distance. Additionally, an original draft of the report had inaccurate data that overstated one provider’s reach.
Both Rosenworcel and Commissioner Geoffrey Starks voted against certifying the report, pointing to the data issues. In his dissent, Starks wrote, "I don’t believe that we know what the state of broadband deployment is in the U.S. with sufficient accuracy."
Both the administration and Congress have made it a priority to close the digital divide, especially by increasing access in rural areas. The White House in February released its multi-agency American Broadband Initiative (ABI) strategy to expand internet access, including $600 million in spending by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and has streamlined infrastructure rules to increase installations. However, the digital divide also remains a problem in cities, where local leaders have tried to increase education and access to low-cost options to ensure that all residents are taking advantage of the broadband options that are offered.