While the United States is making progress on connecting more citizens to the Internet through broadband, it continues to struggle to make it happen in a reasonable and timely manner, according to a draft of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report, recently released for public review.
Access to broadband (which the FCC defines as 25 megabits-per-second downstream and 3Mbps upstream) has improved, with only 10 percent of Americans lacking access to broadband Internet speeds in 2014 (down from 20 percent in 2012).
Urban and Rural Divide Persists
Unfortunately, the report says, there is a clear rural/urban divide in broadband access that is persisting. The report notes that 39 percent of rural Americans lack access (down from 55 percent in 2012), while only 4 percent of those in urban areas cannot access broadband (down from 11 percent in 2012). Tribal areas fare even worse, with 41 percent lacking broadband in 2014 (down from 68 percent in 2012). In total, adequate Internet speeds continues to be out of reach for around 34 million U.S. citizens, according to the FCC.
The report highlights the need for both fixed and mobile broadband, reflecting changes in consumer needs, usage and preferences. Each method of access has its useful purposes and drawbacks.
The report notes that fixed broadband is needed for high-speed, high-capacity connections to support activities such as streaming video, by multiple users in a household. However, the report adds, fixed broadband “can’t provide consumers with the mobile Internet access required to support myriad needs outside the home and while working remotely.”
Mobile broadband is useful for providing access to the Internet while on the go, supporting real-time, two-way communications, mapping applications and social media. Yet those who rely solely on mobile broadband connections “tend to perform a more limited range of tasks and are significantly more likely to incur additional usage fees or forgo use of the Internet.”
Industry Responds Harshly
The response from the telecommunications industry to the report was generally negative. Walter McCormick, president of USTelecom, a trade association group representing broadband service providers and suppliers, responded in a statement: “It would seem the FCC’s report should carry the headline ‘our policies have failed’ since it concludes that six years after the adoption of the national broadband plan, the commission’s actions haven’t produced even so much as a ‘reasonable’ level of broadband deployment.”
McCormick also said in his statement that the industry has invested more than $75 billion a year, grown network capacity, and improved speed exponentially, so clearly “no one actually believes that deployment in the United States is unreasonable.”
As FierceTelecom reports, the FCC in January 2015 voted to change the definition of broadband from a minimum of 4 Mbps for downstream connections and 1 Mbps for upstream. AT&T indicated that the agency is ignoring its own definition.
"It's bad enough the FCC keeps moving the goal posts on their definition of broadband, apparently so they can continue to justify intervening in obviously competitive markets," said Jim Cicconi, senior EVP for external and legislative affairs for AT&T, in a blog post. "But now they are even ignoring their own definition in order to pad their list of accomplishments."
Doug Brake, telecommunications policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, offers a detailed rebuttal of the report’s primary findings and some insights into addressing rural broadband deployments at ITIF’s Innovation Files blog.