Democratic FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks ripped a 2019 broadband deployment report released today, arguing that it erred in concluding that broadband services are being deployed in the U.S. “on a reasonable and timely basis.” But their Republican counterparts agreed with the report’s conclusion while saying that much works remains to ensure that more Americans can access a broadband connection via the agency’s current benchmark of 25 megabits per second downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.
The report, which was adopted on May 8 in GN docket 18-238 over the dissents of Ms. Rosenworcel and Mr. Starks, noted that the FCC “is charged with ‘encourag[ing] the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans,’ by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market. For the past two years, the Commission has taken up the mantle; it has made closing the digital divide between Americans with, and without, access to modern broadband networks its top priority. … We remain committed to ensuring that all Americans, including those in rural areas, Tribal lands, and disaster-affected areas, have the benefits of a high-speed broadband connection.
“As a result of those efforts, the digital divide has narrowed substantially, and more Americans than ever before have access to high-speed broadband. In the time since the Commission’s last Broadband Deployment Report, the number of Americans lacking a connection of at least 25 Mbps/3 Mbps (the Commission’s current benchmark) has 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%. Moreover, the majority of those gaining access to such connections, approximately 4.3 million, are located in rural America,” the report concluded.
“Higher-speed services are being deployed at a rapid rate as well. For example, 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. And the number of rural Americans with access to such broadband increased by 85.1% in 2017,” according to the report. “Other data beyond the data underlying the Broadband Data Report illustrates industry’s response to the Commission’s actions promoting broadband deployment. During 2018, for example, broadband providers, both small and large, deployed fiber networks to 5.9 million new homes, the largest number ever recorded. Also, capital expenditures by broadband providers increased in 2017, reversing declines that occurred in both 2015 and 2016.
“With this compelling evidence before us, we find, for a second consecutive year, that advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis,” the report added. “With this report, the Commission fulfills the Congressional directive to report each year on the progress made in deploying broadband to all Americans.”
The original draft of the broadband deployment report – often called the 706 report after the section of the Communications Act that first mandated it – that was circulated to Commissioners in February said the number of Americans lacking broadband access that met the Commission’s benchmark dropped from 26.1 million at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017.
But the Wireline Competition Bureau provided a revised version of the draft earlier this month in light of the discovery that some provider-submitted data “drastically overstated deployment data to the FCC,” the agency said in a May 1 press release (TR Daily, May 1). A press release on the original draft had said that additional Americans gaining access to broadband connections totaled about 5.6 million rather than 4.3 million.
“It is simply not credible for the Federal Communications Commission to clap its hands and pronounce our broadband job done — and yet that is exactly what it does in this report today. By determining that under the law broadband deployment is reasonable and timely for all Americans, we not only fall short of our statutory responsibility, we show a cruel disregard for those who the digital age has left behind,” Ms. Rosenworcel complained in a statement.
“This report deserves a failing grade. 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,” she said.
“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,” Ms. Rosenworcel added.
“First, we need to stop relying on data we know is wrong. Putting aside the embarrassing fumble of the FCC blindly accepting incorrect data for the original version of this report, there are serious problems with its basic methodology. Time and again this agency has acknowledged the grave limitations of the data we collect to assess broadband deployment. If a service provider claims that they serve a single customer in a census block, our existing data practices assume that there is service throughout the census block. This is not right. It means the claim in this report that there are only 21 million people in the United States without broadband is fundamentally flawed,” she said.
“Second, we need high standards,” Ms. Rosenworcel said. “It has been four years since the FCC updated its broadband standard from 4 Megabits to 25 Megabits per second. Technology changes fast. In fact, three years ago, this country’s largest broadband provider began rolling out Gigabit service to just shy of 60 million homes and businesses. This agency needs to keep up. It’s time for the FCC to adopt a 100 Megabits per second standard and set Gigabit speeds in our sight.
“Third, we need to be honest about the state of what we have found. We will never manage problems we do not measure. Our ability to address the challenge of uneven internet access across the country is only made more challenging by our inability to be frank about the state of deployment today,” Ms. Rosenworcel said. “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.”
“The 2019 Broadband Deployment Report reaches the wrong conclusion,” Commissioner Starks said. “According to the report, the digital divide has narrowed substantially over the past two years and broadband is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis. The rosy picture the report paints about the status of broadband deployment is fundamentally at odds with reality. While I would like to be able to celebrate along with the FCC’s majority, our broadband deployment mission is not yet accomplished. 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. But I am also compelled to speak out about the process that led to this report, which, when initially circulated, was based on massive, erroneous overstatements of high-speed internet deployment in the underlying data,” Mr. Starks added. “The errors in the circulated report involved a broadband provider called Barrier Free that, in its first broadband service report to the FCC, reported that as of December 2017 it provided high-speed broadband service in an area where 62 million people live. If Barrier Free’s reporting was correct (it was not – Barrier Free acknowledged the errors in its revised filing in March 2019) it would have gone from providing no service as of March 2017 to being the 4th largest ISP in the country as of December 2017. The fact that such a huge error was not flagged but instead was baked into the FCC’s data underlying this report – the same data underlying much of the FCC’s frequently criticized broadband mapping efforts – demonstrates the fundamental problems with the FCC’s data analysis capabilities.”
“Unfortunately, the Commission’s problems with data simply don’t end with the Barrier Free incident. One thing that members of Congress and nearly every industry stakeholder agree on is that the FCC’s broadband mapping, and the data behind it, including the data used by the Commission to create its annual broadband deployment report, has serious flaws,” Commissioner Starks added. “We hear about these flaws frequently at a high level – but they are worth exploring in more detail. Three of the most frequently identified flaws are rooted in FCC interpretations of how to gather and use data. They are within our power to fix, and we must do so.”
The Commissioner noted that (1) “critics frequently attack the FCC’s mapping for treating an entire census block as served if a service provider reports providing service at any location within the block”; (2) “fixed broadband service providers may report areas as served if they ‘could’ serve them, even if they do not actually provide service”; and (3) carriers “aren’t required to report the speeds they are actually providing.”
“This report fulfills our task mandated by Congress and I am pleased to support it,” Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly said. “To be clear: according to our data collection, which has been rightfully criticized, approximately nine million Americans still lack access to even 10/1 Mbps service, and our finding here does not deny that point. However, our statutory mandate is not only to determine whether all Americans currently have access to advanced telecommunications capabilities, but also whether progress in deploying such services is proceeding at a reasonable and timely pace, and an affirmative response to the latter inquiry is completely consistent with the facts on the ground. I remain steadfast in my commitment to bringing access to those Americans currently without any broadband option at all and look forward to further actions by this Commission on this front, including, above all, the implementation of the Remote Areas Fund (RAF) auction in some form or fashion. At the same time, there is no doubt that rapid and robust progress in deployment, particularly in the wireless space, is evident according to the albeit imperfect data we have.”
But Mr. O’Rielly added that he remains “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. According to a 2018 Pew Research study cited in this very record, one in five American adults have opted to subscribe exclusively to mobile service — a 7-point increase since 2015. Beyond the existence of cross-platform competition, fixed providers are increasingly entering the wireless market, and integrating their wired and wireless technologies with each other. Given this new horizon of technological convergence, a siloed approach to fixed and mobile service makes even less sense.
“Moreover, the report focuses shortsightedly on the limitations of mobile service, whereas, one could just as easily point to the limitations of fixed service in meeting the functionalities that customers value,” Mr. O’Rielly continued. “For example, why do we focus on the shortcomings of mobile service with respect to bandwidth capacity — which is especially absurd given consumers’ increasing reliance on mobile services for bandwidth-intensive applications like video-streaming — but ignore the shortcomings of fixed service with respect to flexibility and mobility? Whether mobile and fixed serve interchangeable functions for every American for every potential use is immaterial for purposes of this report, and we should be evaluating both services from a technology neutral standpoint.”
He added that he hopes “that by next year’s report, the Commission will have the requisite data to finally recognize marketplace and technological reality with respect to mobile broadband and evaluate the state of deployment in a more comprehensive manner.”
“This year’s Section 706 report contains more good news for American leadership in 5G,” said Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr. “The FCC’s policies are working. Internet speeds in the U.S. have never been faster: they’re up nearly 40%. The digital divide — the percentage of Americans without access to high-speed Internet access — narrowed by nearly 20%. Providers built fiber broadband out to more homes last year than ever before. 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.”
Mr. Carr added that the Commission “is working to encourage even more broadband infrastructure deployment. We updated federal rules regarding the placement of small cells and other wireless facilities. We built on common sense siting reforms adopted in states and cities across the country. And we freed up more spectrum than any other country in the world. None of this is to say that our job at the FCC is done. As the Report makes clear, far too many Americans remain unable to access high-speed broadband, and we have much more work left to do. But the question Congress set out in Section 706 is ‘whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.’ The data show that it is. I look forward to building on this good momentum and ensuring that even more Americans can benefit from the economic opportunity that broadband enables.”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai did not have a statement included with the report released today. But in a statement released upon circulation of the revised draft report earlier this month, Mr. Pai said, “Fortunately, the new data doesn’t change the report’s fundamental conclusion: we are closing the digital divide, which means we’re delivering on the FCC’s top priority. We’re achieving this result by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and providing efficient, effective support for rural broadband expansion through our Universal Service Fund programs. I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners to continue making progress toward that goal in the coming year.”
In response to the final report, Benton Foundation Executive Director Adrianne Furniss said, “There is an old joke about a drunk man searching for his keys under a streetlight and when asked if that’s where he lost them, he answers, ‘No, but this is where the light is.’ Unfortunately, we can’t make light of the FCC’s latest broadband report which arrives at a crucial conclusion using, by its own admission, flawed data. Many may argue that the FCC came to the wrong conclusion; others will say that it is correct. But the point is: How can the FCC come to any conclusion when it knows the information it is basing its decision on is flawed?
“Recently, the FCC majority has engaged in legal gymnastics to change the standard the FCC uses to comply with its annual obligation to report to Congress on the state of broadband deployment in the U.S. Perhaps we should ask Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and [Brendan] Carr these simple questions: Do you live in a home that cannot access broadband? If you did, would you still agree that broadband is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis? That is the conclusion these commissioners are asking 21.3 million Americans to come to. That is unacceptable. Let's stop making decisions in the dark.”
Public Knowledge also criticized the report.
“The FCC has yet again given themselves a pat on the back for ‘narrowly closing’ the digital divide in the 2019 broadband deployment report all while millions of Americans are still unserved and underserved,” said Alisa Valentin, communications justice fellow at the public interest group. “The FCC issued this report despite flawed self-reported data that drastically overestimated which communities are connected to this essential service. If we fail to accurately identify who has access to broadband in America, we will fail to find proper policy solutions for closing the digital divide. This lackadaisical approach to understanding the breadth of the digital divide will result in widening disparities in education, healthcare, and economic opportunity. This is a complete disservice to communities of color, rural communities, and low-income communities who can’t afford to be left behind in the digital age; our country deserves more. This is about accountability. If the FCC truly wants to avoid ‘waste, fraud, and abuse’ then the Broadband Deployment Report should serve as the premier data source for understanding what consumers are unserved and underserved. The Commission is in dire need of an overhaul of Form 477, which is the data used as the primary basis for the Broadband Deployment Report. The agency itself admits that the form isn’t perfect but chooses to address how to improve data collection at a later date. In order to understand the digital divide, consumers need access to accurate pricing data and information about actual speeds and not just advertised speeds. Without these reforms, we will be here next year looking at yet another questionable report.”
Connect Americans Now Executive Director Richard Cullen said, “While we continue to be concerned that the FCC’s data collection methods result in overstated claims of broadband availability, we appreciate the Commission’s continued commitment to this issue and the need for swift action to bridge the rural broadband gap. By the FCC’s own estimation, more than 21 million Americans lack access to broadband. For the majority of those living in rural America, this problem persists because traditional solutions such as fiber are too expensive to deploy to their communities and affordable wireless solutions like TV white spaces technology continue to be held back by outdated regulatory barriers. We look forward to continuing to work with Chairman Pai and the rest of the commissioners to bring affordable and innovative solutions to rural America.”- Paul Kirby, [email protected]
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