Affordability, Adoption, Availability, and Equitable Access Impact FCC's Broadband Deployment Report

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, April 26, 2024

Weekly Digest

Affordability, Adoption, Availability, and Equitable Access Impact FCC's Broadband Deployment Report

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of April 22-26, 2024

Kevin Taglang

On March 14, 2024, the Federal Communications Commission concluded that broadband is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has allocated tens of billions of dollars to support broadband deployment so it may not come as a huge surprise that the FCC came to this conclusion. Approximately 24 million Americans (7% of the total U.S. population)—including almost 28 percent of Americans in rural areas, and more than 23 percent of people living on Tribal lands—lack access to fixed broadband of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed paired with 20 Mbps upload speed. For these people, networks that can provide affordable, reliable high-speed Internet service cannot be deployed soon enough.

In the wake of the FCC's latest broadband deployment report, much of the attention has been on the FCC's new benchmark for high-speed fixed broadband: 100/20 Mbps. In the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress determined that locations without access to networks that can deliver 25/3 Mbps service are "unserved" and locations without access to 100/20 Mbps service are "underserved." So the FCC's new standard reflects a minimum for broadband service as envisioned by Congress. 

But the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is also having a deeper (although less flashy) influence on the FCC's annual determination of whether or not broadband "is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion." The FCC is now looking past just the physical deployment of networks and also considering broadband affordability, adoption, availability, and equitable access.

From the 1996 Telecommunications Act to the 2021 Infrastructure Act

In Section 706 Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress required that the FCC 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) and shall complete the inquiry within 180 days after its initiation. In the inquiry, the Commission shall determine whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. If the Commission’s determination is negative, it shall take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.

In the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress for the first time since enacting section 706 provided additional statutory text regarding the meaning of the provision and required the FCC to "commence a proceeding to evaluate the implications of this Act and the amendments made by this Act on how the Commission should achieve the universal service goals for broadband. Congress defined "universal service goals for broadband" to mean "the statutorily mandated goals of universal service for advanced telecommunications capability under section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996." The FCC found Congress' language to be consistent with the approach the Commission has historically undertaken as recently as in 2016, when it stated that “the standard for success is universal availability of [broadband]. 

In August 2022, the FCC released the Report on the Future of the Universal Service Fund and adopted the "goals of universal deployment, affordability, adoption, availability, and equitable access to broadband throughout the United States as the Commission’s universal service goals for broadband." 

In this latest proceeding, the FCC finds "that these universal service goals, which are not limited to the narrow question of physical deployment of service, are consistent with those adopted in the Report on the Future of the Universal Service Fund (Future of USF Report), and accurate indicators of whether [broadband] is universally available."


To truly close the connectivity gap and ensure that all Americans have high-speed internet access, broadband services must be affordable

The FCC finds that broadband affordability is critical to its assessment of availability. If broadband is unaffordable, it is not effectively available, even if it has been physically deployed. Far too many households across the country wrestle with how to pay for gas and groceries and also keep up with the broadband bill. To truly close the connectivity gap and ensure that all Americans have high-speed internet access, broadband services must be affordable.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress acted to help close the broadband affordability gap, establishing the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. Eligible low-income households could receive a discount off the cost of broadband service and certain connected devices during an emergency period relating to the pandemic, and participating providers could receive a reimbursement for such discounts. Congress then extended the program beyond the emergency period in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, changing the name to the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), appropriating an additional $14.2 billion for the ACP, and reducing the monthly support amount. 

Although the FCC concludes that affordability is a huge factor in determining broadband availability, the Commission notes its limitations in making determinations based on this factor. 

  • First, there is no consensus on how to define affordability. 
  • Second, while the concept of broadband adoption is related to the concept of broadband affordability, the two concepts are not the same.  For example, a household might have the income to afford broadband service, but choose not to subscribe because it does not have a need for the Internet or streaming video, or because broadband is not available.  Alternatively, a household might subscribe to broadband even though it imposes significant financial hardship. 
  • Third, affordability is likely to vary not only with a household’s income, but also with the choices and characteristics of the available broadband services (including the number of competing providers, the characteristics of the broadband offerings, and the price of such offerings), and the price of other goods and services the household consumes. 

More comprehensive data are necessary for the FCC to make any definitive conclusions about the number of households for which broadband remains unaffordable.

The FCC plans to revisit affordability in future Section 706 inquiries, but, given the overall lack of data and information, the Commission limits itself to an initial analysis of some of the factors that affect affordability (like income and geographic location). At this time, the FCC finds it does not have sufficient data to draw any conclusions as to the general affordability of broadband service or its affordability for particular types of households.    


The FCC finds that there are a number of barriers to broadband adoption other than service availability and service affordability. These barriers include access to devices used to connect to broadband and lack of digital literacy. All states and U.S. territories have recently written digital equity plans that identify and offer strategies to address additional barriers like access technical support and digital navigators, the trusted guides who assist community members in internet adoption and the use of computing devices.

FCC considers the goal of universal adoption to be a universal lack of barriers to adoption—not 100 percent adoption.

In the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress allocated $2.75 billion to the states for digital inclusion planning and the implementation of those plans. State digital equity plans include:

  • identification of the barriers to digital equity faced by key populations in the state; 
  • measurable objectives for documenting and promoting the availability of, affordability of, and access to, fixed and wireless broadband technology;
  • the online accessibility and inclusivity of public resources and services;
  • digital literacy;
  • awareness of, and the use of, measures to secure the online privacy of, and cybersecurity with respect to, an individual; and
  • the availability and affordability of consumer devices and technical support for those devices.

Moreover, Congress recognized that programs such as the ACP are only effective if potential subscribers know about them—authorizing the FCC to provide grants to ACP outreach partners.

Using its own data collected from broadband internet access providers, the FCC examines the number of residential fixed terrestrial broadband connections divided by the number of households located in the census blocks in which the FCC deployment data indicate that fixed terrestrial services are deployed. As of year-end 2022, approximately 42 percent of households subscribe to 100/20 Mbps broadband when it is available. Under 20 percent of households subscribe to broadband at the FCC's new long-term goal speed of approximately 940/500 Mbps when it is available. Adoption rates for the United States as a whole are higher in urban areas at speeds of 25/3 Mbps and 100/20 Mbps, while non-urban areas have slightly higher adoption rates at speeds of 940/500 Mbps. For Tribal Areas, adoption rates for the 25/3 Mbps speed tier are higher in urban areas, while adoption rates for the faster speed tiers are higher in non-urban areas.

The FCC data highlight adoption rates in geographic areas, but can't tease out the role of the various barriers on adoption. Due to its current lack of data regarding specific barriers to adoption, the FCC analyzes its data primarily as an indicator of potential barriers to adoption. Further work is needed to explore the patterns of non-adoption of fixed broadband.

Of note, the FCC considers the goal of universal adoption to be a universal lack of barriers to adoption other than service availability and service affordability—not 100 percent adoption. 


Every policy wonk loves a good game of semantics, but what, actually, is the difference between broadband access and availability?

Availability, the FCC says, is distinct from physical deployment, referring to consumers’ ability to purchase broadband service in areas where service is physically deployed. As an example, broadband service may be physically deployed to a location (think an apartment building), but the wiring of a building does not support the capability for all of the tenants to receive service.

Service quality is important—it has a real and significant effect on consumers’ ability to use critical web-based applications, including those that facilitate telehealth, telework, and virtual learning.

Of note, the FCC says that all aspects of service quality should be evaluated in the context of availability. If a “service” does not have the characteristics reasonably expected of that service when a consumer wants to use it based on measurable statistical standards, that service is not “available.”  Actual (as opposed to advertised) speed received, consistency of speed, and data allowances are also important. While the FCC evaluates service quality in the context of availability, the Commission acknowledges that many aspects of service quality could also be viewed in the context of evaluating whether the service has been “deployed.” In other words, if the service “deployed” does not, in fact, have the characteristics reasonably expected of such service (such as sufficiently low latency and sufficiently high consistency of service), that “service” could be said to have not been truly deployed to a location.

Overall, the FCC does not establish a standard for the universal service goal of availability at this time, although the Commission does discuss potential measures and available data.


Latency is the measure of the time it takes a packet of data to travel from one point in the network to another. It is typically measured by round-trip time in milliseconds (ms). Latency can be critical because it affects a consumer’s ability to use real-time applications, including voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), video calling, distance learning applications, and online gaming. Based on a detailed analysis of International Telecommunications Union design objectives, the FCC has operationalized this standard for performance measurement purposes to mean that 95 percent or more of all peak period measurements (also referred to as observations) of network round trip latency are at or below 100 milliseconds (ms). [Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program-supported networks will have to meet a similar standard.]

The FCC does not have comprehensive data on broadband network latency and intends to revisit this issue in future inquiries as it learns more about—and potentially develops access to—additional data.

Consistency of Service

A consistency of service metric concerns the percentage of performance test measurements, conducted under defined conditions, that demonstrate both download and upload speeds are being provided at a particular percentage of the “required” speed a particular percentage of the time. The FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration use 80 percent of measurements in each direction reflecting at least 80 percent of the “required” speed, otherwise known as “80/80." The FCC posits that it could consider service to be “available” only if it meets this 80/80 standard—which, in the case of 100/20 Mbps, would be 80/16 Mbps at least 80 percent of the time.

Other Aspects of Availability

The FCC identifies service outages and access to inside wiring as other potential areas and measurements of availability. But, without comprehensive sources of data, the FCC does not adopt any other aspects of availability at this time—although the Commission says it intends to revisit this issue in future inquiries.

Equitable Access

In the Report on the Future of the Universal Service Fund, the FCC said it could measure progress toward the goal of equitable access to broadband through its work to implement the Infrastructure Act, which directs the Commission to take action to prevent and eliminate digital discrimination. Through the preventing digital discrimination rules, the Commission seeks to define and facilitate equal access to broadband, as well as identify and prevent digital discrimination on the basis of income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin. 

For the broadband deployment report, the FCC compiled a list of geographical areas that are not served by any broadband provider. To the extent that data from the Census Bureau are available, the Commission determines, for each unserved area, the population, the population density, and the average per capita income. The FCC finds that the number of provider options increases with the number of housing units in the census block group, population density, and median household income. In general, the census block groups in rural areas will tend to have the lowest population density and the lowest number of households and are likely to have the largest percentage of households with zero provider options (that is, no service availability of the reported service). And, on average, service availability is highest in census blocks with the highest median household incomes, the highest population densities, and the lowest household poverty rates.

The FCC has only just begun the process of implementing the digital discrimination of access rules, and the standards and metrics for determining compliance with those rules will be, the Commission says, "highly context specific."  

Future Section 706 Reports

  • How should the FCC define affordability?
  • What factors beyond income impact broadband affordability?
  • What impact have Federal and state affordability initiatives—like ACP, the Emergency Connectivity Fund, Lifeline, and California LifeLine—had on broadband adoption?
  • What are the barriers to broadband adoption past access and affordability? Can they be measured at the local level?
  • Is latency a more important metric than speed when evaluating service quality? 
  • What communities are served, and what communities are not served, by large-scale broadband deployment, upgrade, and maintenance projects?

Although the reader may be frustrated with the FCC's lack of data on and conclusions about broadband affordability, adoption, availability, and equitable access, the report does illustrate an opportunity for researchers to start work now on impacting future determinations of whether or not broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Apr 26—Disparities in Digital Access (Washington Post)

Apr 28—2024 Legislative + Policy Conference (NTCA)

Apr 30—Affordable Connectivity Program Day of Action (Public Knowledge)

May 1—Executive Session (Senate Commerce Committee)

May 6—Closing the Cybersecurity Gap (Axios)

May 15—FCC Tribal Workshop Hosted by the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma (FCC)

May 16—Disability Advisory Committee Meeting (FCC)

May 23—May 2024 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting (FCC)


The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
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