TR Daily Revised Section 706 Report Still Finds Digital Divide ‘Narrowing’
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Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Revised Section 706 Report Still Finds Digital Divide ‘Narrowing’

The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau today provided a revised version of the draft 2019 report on broadband deployment, reflecting a review in light of the discovery that some provider-submitted data “drastically overstated deployment data to the FCC,” the agency said in a press release today.

However, the conclusion of the revised draft report — commonly known as the section 706 report after the section of the Communications Act that first mandated it — is unchanged from February when FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced he was circulating to his fellow Commissioners in February (TR Daily, Feb. 19). It continues to find that “significant progress has been made in closing the digital divide in America,” according to today’s press release.

The original draft report said that the number of Americans lacking Internet access that meets the Commission’s fixed broadband benchmark for the purposes of section 706 — which is 25 megabits per second downstream and 3 Mbps upstream — dropped from 26.1 million at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017.

The revised report based on the corrected data finds that “the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed terrestrial broadband connection meeting the FCC’s advanced telecommunications capability benchmark speed of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps has dropped by over 18%, from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 21.3 million at the end of 2017,” according to today’s press release. It also said that the revised draft report finds that “the majority of those gaining access to such high-speed connections, approximately 4.3 million, live in rural America, where broadband deployment has traditionally lagged.” The press release on the original draft report had said that the number of Americans gaining access to high-speed connections was approximately 5.6 million.

Today’s press release added, “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 [compared with 45% growth to 205.2 million in the original draft report]. And the number of rural Americans with access to such broadband increased by 85.1% in 2017 [compared with ‘more than doubled’ in the original draft report]. In addition, the number of Americans with access to 100 Mbps/10 Mbps broadband grew in 2017 by more than 18%, to 288.4 million [compared with 290.9 million in the original draft report], while the number of rural Americans with access to such broadband increased by 44% in 2017, to 37.4 million.”

The press release in February described the draft report, which remains an internal FCC document, as concluding “advanced telecommunications services — broadband — is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis,” which is the statutory language for the assessment the FCC is charged with making. Today’s press release does not use the statutory language in describing the revised draft report’s conclusion. However, in response to TR Daily’s request for comment on the discrepancy, an FCC spokesperson said that while the statutory language is not in the press release, the conclusion that the statutory test is being met is still the conclusion of the revised draft report.

After the February announcement by Chairman Pai that he was circulating the draft report, Free Press urged the FCC to withhold release of the report until revisions are made to address the inclusion of data based on large-scale over-reporting of broadband deployment by BarrierFree, a new filer of Form 477 broadband data. Free Press said that including the erroneous data “results in a massive over-statement of the change in broadband deployment at the national level during 2017” (TR Daily, March 8).

Chairman Pai later acknowledged that the release of the report was pending while the Commission looked into the reporting error (TR Daily, March 21).

In a statement today on the revised draft report, Chairman Pai said, “We’re pleased that the FCC’s policy of making deployment data open and transparent to the public resulted in this error being discovered. 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.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, “While it’s a good thing the FCC has finally fixed this mess with its data, the fact of the matter is that millions of American households — in rural and urban communities — have no access to high-speed service. That’s a problem. With tens of millions of Americans without access to broadband, it’s simply not credible for the agency to conclude that broadband deployment across the country is reasonable and timely.”

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said, “This is embarrassing. The Chairman put forward a draft report with a huge error baked into it that calls into question the FCC’s data practices generally. The FCC’s data and maps have enough problems as is — they have become repeat offenders. Given all that has happened, it is difficult to have any confidence in this or any other FCC product that purports to show who has broadband and who does not.”

Commissioner Brendan Carr said, “The report confirms that the FCC’s policies are working. Internet speeds are up nearly 40%, the digital divide is narrowing, and the U.S. now has the world’s largest 5G deployment. I’ve seen this progress in communities around the country as well as the good-paying jobs and economic opportunity that broadband builds are enabling.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]

MainStory: FederalNews FCC BroadbandDeployment

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