Just a song before he go: Ajit Pai's last broadband deployment report is same tired tune

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, January 29, 2021

Weekly Digest

Just a song before he go: Ajit Pai's last broadband deployment report is same tired tune

 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 January 25-29, 2021

Kevin Taglang

As longtime Benton readers know, since 1996 Congress has charged the Federal Communications Commission with encouraging the deployment of broadband to all Americans on a reasonable and timely basis. Congress also requires the FCC annually to initiate an inquiry concerning the availability of broadband. In conducting this inquiry, the FCC must determine whether broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.  If not, the FCC is to take immediate action to accelerate broadband deployment. The FCC last released a broadband deployment report in April 2020 and, so, it was a bit of a surprise when the 2021 report was released on January 19, the day before the Inauguration and new leadership would take over at the FCC. What was the news that departing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had to rush out the door?   

I. Pai FCC Says U.S. Broadband Deployment Is Great

The FCC’s top news in the 2021 report is that the number of Americans living in areas without access to at least 25/3 Mbps has dropped from more than 18.1 million Americans at the end of 2018 to fewer than 14.5 million Americans at the end of 2019, a decrease of more than 20%. Moreover, more than three-quarters of those in newly served areas, nearly 3.7 million, are located in rural areas, bringing the number of rural Americans in areas served by at least 25/3 Mbps to nearly 83%. But here's where we might first temper the excitement. The FCC's 2021 progress report is really about 2019, not 2020. Last year wrought a host of challenges and the FCC is not even attempting to address those challenges in this report.  

Since 2016, the FCC emphasizes, the number of Americans living in rural areas lacking access to 25/3 Mbps service has fallen more than 46%. The gap between the percentage of urban Americans and the percentage of rural Americans with access to 25/3 Mbps fixed broadband has been nearly halved, falling from 30 points at the end of 2016 to just 16 points at the end of 2019.

With regard to mobile broadband, since 2018, the number of Americans lacking access to 4G LTE mobile broadband with a median speed of 10/3 Mbps was reduced by more than 57%, including a nearly 54% decrease among rural Americans, according to the FCC data. As of the end of 2019, the vast majority of Americans (94%) had access to both 25/3 Mbps fixed broadband service and mobile broadband service with a median speed of 10/3 Mbps.  According to the wireless industry, as of the end of 2019, mobile providers were providing access to 5G capability to approximately 60% of Americans and these strides in mobile broadband deployment were fueled by more than $29 billion of capital expenditures in 2019 (roughly 18% of global mobile capital spending), the largest mobile broadband investment since 2015.

Based on these findings, the Commission rules, for a third consecutive year, that broadband is being deployed to all Americans on a reasonable and timely basis. 

II. Pai FCC Finds No Reason to Change How It Evaluates U.S. Broadband Deployment

To evaluate U.S. broadband deployment, the FCC again employed what it calls a “progress-based approach,” parsing out the language of the law to determine that Congress intended that the FCC evaluate the current state of deployment to all Americans, not to determine whether each and every American is served at this moment. So instead of determining if broadband networks reach everywhere in the U.S., the FCC considers the progress towards universal deployment. For the communities and households still waiting for broadband to be deployed, this must be very comforting. 

A. What Constitutes Broadband?

Many commenters (including Benton) suggested that the FCC should increase its current speed benchmark for broadband of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, given that more Americans are choosing access to faster broadband speeds, and because of the increased demand for data-intensive services such as telework platforms, distance learning, telehealth, and video conferencing. Many (like Benton) also suggest adopting symmetrical download/upload speed benchmarks. But the FCC declined these suggestions for various reasons, finding that the current speed benchmark of 25/3 Mbps remains an appropriate measure by which to assess whether an internet service is in fact providing broadband.    

First, the FCC says that 25/3 Mbps is good enough because it “enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications” and “to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications,” and thus meets the definition Congress adopted in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The FCC determines that maintaining the same benchmark across multiple years’ reports makes it easier to measure deployment progress over time.

Second, the FCC finds that Congress’ 1996 definition of broadband does not suggest that “advanced” necessarily means the highest quality service possible.

Third, the FCC rejected arguments for adopting symmetrical speed benchmarks, whereby the download speed and the upload speed are the same in any given benchmark, because "commenters largely make unsupported assertions about the significance of higher upload speeds, and do not provide convincing, data-driven reasoning demonstrating the need for making this change."

On the wireless side, the FCC continues to evaluate broadband deployment using multiple metrics instead of relying on a single benchmark because a single benchmark is unreliable due to the inherent variability in the performance characteristics of mobile service, both geographically and temporally.  So the FCC analyzes provider-reported 4G LTE coverage, where service providers claim a minimum advertised speed of 5/1 Mbps.  (But the FCC wants to be clear that it is not saying that 5/1 Mbps is a mobile broadband benchmark.) The FCC supplements provider-reported data with Ookla speed-test data, which identify areas showing median speed tests of at least 10/3 Mbps. 

Some suggest that the FCC adopt additional benchmarks such as latency. But the FCC argues that the commenters do not offer a reliable and sufficiently comprehensive data source for such analysis. The FCC also declined the requests of some commenters (like Benton) to consider affordability, saying that such a metric falls outside the scope of the inquiry. While factors such as data allowances or pricing may affect consumers’ use of broadband or influence decisions concerning the purchase of these services in the first instance, the FCC decided such considerations do not affect the underlying determination of whether broadband has been deployed and made available to customers in a given area. The FCC also noted that commenters that support including non-performance metrics fail to cite reliable, comprehensive data sources that the FCC could use, or offer sound methodologies for incorporating these metrics into the inquiry.

Wireless is no substitute for wired broadband

The FCC considers both fixed and mobile services as capable of independently meeting the definition of broadband, but that fixed and mobile services are not full substitutes. Users generally treat fixed and mobile services as complements rather than substitutes. Consumers tend to subscribe to both services when they have the ability to do so, which suggests that, even though there is some overlap in functionality, both services continue to offer distinct capabilities for consumers. 

B. Tribal Lands

The FCC finds that Tribal lands continue to face significant obstacles to broadband deployment, and lag behind deployment in other, non-Tribal areas.  Many of these lands are located disproportionately in rural areas, which tend to be less densely populated than rural non-Tribal areas. The remote, isolated nature of these areas, combined with challenging terrain and lower incomes, increases the cost of network deployment and entry, thereby reducing the profitability of providing service.  Due to the challenges in accounting for all types of Tribal lands and obstacles to infrastructure investment, the FCC says that continued work is needed to spur broadband deployment in these areas.  But in the same breath, the FCC says its data reveals continuing progress in deployment. 

With broadband deployment on Tribal lands lagging so far behind the rest of America, how can the FCC find it to be on a reasonable and timely basis?

III. Broadband Deployment and Availability

A. Data Sources and Methodologies

The FCC continues to rely primarily on its admittedly flawed Form 477 deployment data to evaluate consumers’ broadband options for fixed terrestrial and mobile services. Why? Congress passed a law mandating the FCC improve its data. Observers inside and outside the government agree that it is terribly flawed. Heck, even the FCC admits there's a problem.  But the FCC agrees with some commenters that the FCC Form 477 data remains the most reliable and comprehensive data to assess broadband availability to complete the inquiry. The FCC Form 477 deployment data are also available to the public, the FCC says, which increases the transparency of the analysis and permits the public to independently assess its broadband service deployment data. 

In August 2019, the FCC adopted new requirements for broadband mapping as part of its Digital Opportunity Data Collection proceeding for collecting granular, precise coverage data. And –  in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 – Congress provided the FCC the funding it needs to implement these changes, but data from that collection is not yet available.

B. Broadband Deployment Estimates

As of year-end 2019, the FCC says, approximately 96% of the overall population had coverage of fixed broadband services, up from 94% in 2018.  The gap between urban areas and rural and Tribal areas has narrowed each year over the last five years, the FCC reports. While the gap between urban and rural areas was 30 percentage points as of year-end 2016, it was 16 percentage points as of year-end 2019. As of the end of 2019, approximately 17% of Americans in rural areas and 21% of Americans in Tribal lands lack coverage from fixed terrestrial 25/3 Mbps broadband, as compared to only 1% of Americans in urban areas.

Source: FCC
Source: FCC

Almost all of the American population lives in geographic areas covered by mobile 4G LTE with a minimum advertised speed of at least 5/1 Mbps.  From 2015 to 2019, the percentage of Americans living in rural areas with coverage of 4G LTE at 5/1 Mbps increased from approximately 98% to 99%.  Between 2018 and 2019, the percentage of Americans living in the United States with mobile 4G LTE services coverage at median speeds of 10/3 Mbps increased from approximately 94% to 97%.  In addition, gains have been made in rural areas, where coverage increased from approximately 80% to almost 91% between 2018 and 2019.  And between 2017 and 2019, deployment of mobile 4G LTE services at median speeds of 10/3 Mbps expanded to cover an additional 16.6 million Americans living in rural areas.

Overall, as of year-end 2019, approximately 313.6 million Americans, or 96% of the population, are covered by both 25/3 Mbps fixed terrestrial service and mobile 4G LTE with a minimum advertised speed of 5/1 Mbps.  In rural areas, approximately 82% of Americans are covered by both services, up from 78% in 2018.  On Tribal lands, approximately 79% of Americans have coverage from both services, up from 72% in 2018.  As of December 31, 2019, approximately 94% of Americans live in geographic areas covered by both fixed terrestrial speeds of 25/3 Mbps and mobile 4G LTE with median speed of 10/3 Mbps, an increase of four percentage points since 2018.  Further, these data indicate that, between 2018 and 2019, deployment increased from approximately 66% to over 77% for Americans living in rural areas.

FCC data on deployment of fixed terrestrial 25/3 Mbps service or mobile 4G LTE with a minimum advertised speed of 5/1 Mbps shows that services have been deployed to 99.7% or more of Americans since 2015.  Approximately 99% of the population in the evaluated areas are covered by either 25/3 Mbps fixed terrestrial service or mobile 4G LTE with a median speed of at least 10/3 Mbps.

C. Demographic Data

FCC data shows that, generally, Americans living in areas where fixed terrestrial 25/3 Mbps and mobile 4G LTE services are deployed typically live in census block groups with lower poverty rates and with higher average populations, population densities, per capita incomes, and median household incomes than Americans living in areas without coverage by these services.

D. Tribal Lands

Overall, in 2019, approximately 79% of Tribal lands were covered by fixed terrestrial 25/3 Mbps services and mobile 4G LTE with a speed of 5/1 Mbps, an increase from 72% in 2018 based on FCC Form 477 data.  Deployment on rural Tribal lands continues to lag behind urban Tribal lands, with only approximately 65% of all Tribal lands in rural areas having deployment of both services, as compared to 95% of Tribal lands in urban areas.  But this Tribal urban-rural divide is narrowing: the gap between the percentage of Americans living on urban Tribal lands and the percentage of Americans living on rural Tribal lands with access to 25/3 Mbps fixed broadband and Mobile 4G LTE with a minimum advertised speed of 5/1 Mbp has been nearly halved between 2015 and 2019, falling from more than 55 points to 30 points.

As of December 31, 2019, fixed terrestrial 25/3 Mbps service was deployed to over 79% of Americans on Tribal lands, almost 98% were covered by mobile 4G LTE at speeds of at least 5/1 Mbps, and almost 79% were covered by both services.  The figures show variability in deployment across the Tribal lands categories, with the least deployment in Alaskan Villages.

E. Adoption

The FCC's assessment of adoption from 2015-2019 is based upon FCC Form 477 subscriber data that is collected at the census tract level and FCC Form 477 deployment data that is collected at the census block level.  The reported adoption rates are the number of residential subscriptions divided by the number of households in the area where the FCC Form 477 deployment data indicate that fixed terrestrial services of at least the designated speed are deployed. In general, these data suggest that the average household adoption rate in a county increases with median household income and population density, and decreases with increases in the poverty rate and rural population rate. FCC data show year-to-year increases in the adoption of broadband services across the vast majority of areas, including Tribal lands.


Overall Adoption Rate for Fixed Terrestrial Services at Different Speed Tiers







10/1 Mbps

United States






  Non-Urban Core Areas






  Urban Core Areas






Tribal Lands






  Non-Urban Core Areas






  Urban Core Areas






25/3 Mbps

United States






  Non-Urban Core Areas






  Urban Core Areas






Tribal Lands






  Non-Urban Core Areas






  Urban Core Areas






50/5 Mbps

United States






  Non-Urban Core Areas






  Urban Core Areas






Tribal Lands






  Non-Urban Core Areas






  Urban Core Areas






100/10 Mbps

United States






  Non-Urban Core Areas






  Urban Core Areas






Tribal Lands






  Non-Urban Core Areas






  Urban Core Areas






250/25 Mbps

United States






  Non-Urban Core Areas






  Urban Core Areas






Tribal Lands






  Non-Urban Core Areas






  Urban Core Areas







F. Schools and Classrooms Data

The FCC continues to measure availability of broadband in elementary and secondary schools and classrooms using its long-term goal of 1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff, respectively.  According to the 2020 Connect K-12 Report, the most recent comprehensive data available, 47% of school districts currently meet the goal, which is up from 38% in 2019.  Connected Nation also finds that 35% of the nation’s 1,000 largest school districts and 78% of the nation’s 1,000 smallest school districts meet the long-term goal.

IV. FCC Concludes U.S. Broadband Deployment is Reasonable and Timely

The FCC concludes, as it has in recent years, that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. The number of Americans without access to fixed terrestrial broadband deployment decreased by more than 20% in 2019, with decreases in urban, rural, and Tribal areas.  More Americans—more than 97%—have access to mobile 4G LTE with median speeds of 10/3 Mbps, up from less than 94% in 2018. There were larger deployment increases for both fixed and mobile services, both separately and when combined. 

However, the FCC admits that its work to close the digital divide is not complete. Nearly 14.5 million people still lack access to fixed terrestrial broadband. While deployment is improving in all geographic areas, the FCC recognizes that there is still significant work to do to encourage deployment to rural areas, where more than 17% of Americans lack access, and Tribal lands, where nearly 21% of Americans lack access.

But bad data, bad benchmarks, bad conclusions... we've heard this tired tune before. For 2021, let's hope the FCC's new leadership improves the data, sets new benchmarks, and really works to ensure the promise of universal broadband. It would be music to our ears.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Feb  3 -- Executive Session (Senate Commerce Committee)

Feb  9 -- Wi-Fi Summit (Fierce)

Feb 11 -- Meeting of the Federal Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment (FCC)

Feb 12 -- Emergency Broadband Benefit Program Roundtable Discussion (FCC)

Feb 17 -- February 2021 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting (FCC)

Feb 18 -- Disability Advisory Committee (FCC)

Feb 25 -- If Congress Makes Platforms More Liable for User Speech, What Will Change? (ITIF)

Feb 25 -- The National Strategy To Secure 5G Industry Listening (NTIA)

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
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

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