FCC, Again, Finds Broadband Being Deployed on a Reasonable and Timely Basis

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Friday, May 31, 2019

Weekly Digest

FCC, Again, Finds Broadband Being Deployed on a Reasonable and Timely Basis

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

Round-Up for the Week of May 27-31, 2019

Robbie McBeath

On May 29, 2019, the Federal Communications Commission released the 2019 Broadband Deployment Report. For the second consecutive year, the FCC concluded that broadband is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis. We unpack the report below.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to report annually on the availability of advanced telecommunications capability (broadband) to all Americans and to determine if broadband services are being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. Finding in the negative, the FCC must take immediate action to accelerate broadband deployment by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.
Because of the policy implications of the broadband report, the conclusions over the years have been controversial. There are strong incentives to see the data how one wants to see the data. 

The 2019 Broadband Report

We should be clear that the 2019 broadband report is actually about the state of broadband deployment at the end of 2017 (back when you were humming Cardi B's Money Moves). The FCC primarily relies upon its Form 477 deployment data to evaluate consumers’ broadband options for fixed services. The FCC admits that the data “is not perfect” -- a leading contender for 2019's Understatement of the Year. Form 477 data has been roundly criticized by Members of Congress and the U.S. Government Accountability Office, for example. And bills are lined up in Congress to address the issue.

With that caveat, here’s where the FCC says we were at in December 2017:

  • The number of Americans lacking access to a terrestrial fixed (what you or I might refer to as "in-home", like from a cable company) broadband connection meeting the FCC’s benchmark speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download /3 Mbps upload 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%. [Of note, this was during the time when broadband internet access service was regulated as a Title II telecommunications service and subject to enforceable net neutrality rules.]
    • The majority of those gaining access to such connections, approximately 4.3 million, were in rural areas.
  • 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. 
    • The number of rural Americans with access to such broadband increased by 85.1% in 2017.
  • Breaking from Form 477 data, the FCC relied on Fiber Broadband Association research to report that providers deployed fiber networks to 5.9 million new homes in 2018, the largest number ever recorded.
  • Capital expenditures by broadband providers increased in 2017 (again while under Title II regulation), reversing declines of both 2015 and 2016.

From all of these numbers, the FCC concluded that "the digital divide has narrowed substantially, and more Americans than ever before have access to high-speed broadband."

Different Numbers, Same Conclusion

In February 2019, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai released a one-page press release saying that the 2019 Broadband Deployment Report would show that his deregulatory policies have substantially improved broadband access in the U.S. The release stated the number of Americans lacking broadband access had dropped to 19.4 million.

Even with the limited information available at the time, public interest group Free Press was able to discover a huge error that showed broadband progress under Chairman Pai’s leadership was less impressive than he claimed. Specifically, broadband provider BarrierFree falsely reported to the FCC that it went from serving zero customers to 20 percent of the country in just six months -- and the FCC didn't notice the mistake on its own.

BarrierFree admitted the mistake:

A portion of the submission was parsed incorrectly in the upload process. With the government shutdown in January, we were unable to submit revised documents before the full report went live... We are working with the FCC to improve our 477 data for the December 2017 filing, and expect to have it resolved soon.

Earlier this month, the FCC announced it had revised draft the 2019 report and, despite the revision, the agency “continues to support the conclusion that significant progress has been made in closing the digital divide in America.” 

Read Commissioner Starks’ full dissent.

The magnitude of the errors was not lost on FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks:

The fact that a 2019 Broadband Deployment Report with an error of over 62 million connections was circulated to the full Commission raises serious questions. Was the Chairman’s office aware of the errors when it circulated the draft report? If not, why didn’t an “outlier” detection function raise alarms with regard to Barrier Free? Also, once the report was corrected, the fact that such a large number of connections came out of the report’s underlying data without changing the report’s conclusion, and without resulting in a substantial charge to the report, calls into question the extent to which the report and its conclusions depend on and flow from data.

FCC Justifies Its Conclusion

In the report, the FCC explains its disagreements with “commenters who contend that the section 706 requirements have not been met”:

[T]he statute requires that we determine whether advanced telecommunications capability ‘is being deployed to all Americans’—not whether it has already been deployed to all Americans. The statute does not require perfection; reading section 706(b) to require universal availability as a prerequisite for a positive finding would disregard the statute’s 'reasonable and timely' language. Our policymaking efforts over the last two years are promoting broadband deployment, and the data show that [broadband providers] are making strong progress in deploying advanced telecommunications capability to more and more Americans. These circumstances warrant a positive finding.

Reactions from Commissioners

On May 29, the FCC voted 3-2 to adopt the 2019 Broadband Deployment Report. The three Republicans on the FCC -- Chairman Ajit Pai, Michael O'Rielly, and Brendan Carr -- supported the conclusions of the report. But Democratic commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks dissented. With the exception of Chairman Pai, all of the commissioners provided a statement. 

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly was disappointed that wired, in-home broadband is treated differently than wireless broadband service:

I remain dismayed by the report’s reliance on purported ‘insufficient evidence’ as a basis for maintaining—for yet another year in a row—an outdated siloed approach to evaluating fixed and mobile broadband, rather than examining both markets as one. Data shows that fixed and mobile service are undoubtedly substitutable for many Americans and that fixed and mobile providers are in fierce competition with one another for customers.

FCC Commissioner Carr focused on 5G:

This year’s Section 706 report contains more good news for American leadership in 5G. The FCC’s policies are working....The U.S. now has the largest commercial deployment of 5G in the world, and we’re predicted to have more than two times the percentage of 5G connections as Asia. That is more broadband for more Americans.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was a bit more critical. “This report deserves a failing grade,” she said. “ It concludes that broadband deployment is reasonable and timely throughout the United States. This will come as news to millions and millions of Americans who lack access to high-speed service at home.”

And Commissioner Rosenworcel offered a solution. “Instead of this report, we should be issuing a candid appraisal of the work we have to do to bring broadband everywhere.” This requires three things:

  1. We need to stop relying on data we know is wrong
  2. We need high standards -- it is time for the FCC to adopt a 100 Megabits per second standard and set Gigabit speeds in our sight
  3. We need to be honest about the state of what we have found. Moreover, we need to be thoughtful about how impediments to adoption, like affordability, are an important part of the digital equity equation and our national broadband challenge.
FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks
FCC Commissioner
Geoffrey Starks

FCC Commissioner Starks said, “The 2019 Broadband Deployment Report reaches the wrong conclusion.” He continued:

If you are 10 steps away from your goal and you move a step-and-a-half forward, you don’t have a victory party when your work isn’t done. You give yourself a pat on the back and put your head down to achieve the remaining eight-and-a-half steps. And that’s where we are – with over 21 million Americans without access to quality, affordable broadband, we are about eight-and-a-half steps behind and we must get back to work. The report masks the urgent need for continued and renewed action to address inequities in internet access in rural, tribal, and urban areas of the country. The fundamental disconnect between the report and reality is reason enough for my dissent.


Whether or not one agrees with the FCC’s conclusion, there seems to be an overwhelming consensus that the FCC still has a lot of work to do to ensure all Americans have access to broadband. The 2019 Broadband Deployment Report concludes:

We recognize that despite our positive finding today, our work to close the digital divide is not complete. For instance, the data demonstrates that six percent of Americans, over 19 million households, lack access to fixed terrestrial advanced telecommunications capability and we recognize that the situation is especially problematic in rural areas, where over 24% lack access, and Tribal Lands, where 32% lack access. 

You can be sure the Benton Foundation will continue to track the actual progress to reduce the digital divide. Our goal, after all, is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.

You can follow along daily by subscribing to Headlines -- the only free, reliable, and non-partisan daily digest that curates and distributes news related to universal broadband.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Events Calendar for June 3-7, 2019

June 3 -- FCC Consumer Advisory Committee Meeting

June 3 -- Next Generation Wi-Fi: Accelerating 5G for All Americans, New America

June 3-5 -- Fiber Connect, Fiber Broadband Association

June 5 -- Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet, New America

June 5 -- What's the Answer to the C-Band Conundrum?, Technology Policy Institute

June 6 -- Open FCC Meeting

Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Foundation
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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By Robbie McBeath.