The Federal Communications Commission is required by law (under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996) to initiate a notice of inquiry and report annually on whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. This annual broadband report is incredibly important because the findings and conclusions are designed to help Congress and the FCC develop policies that ensure all Americans have robust broadband access. Reports with inaccurate data on broadband availability can skew the findings and prevent unserved and underserved areas from gaining access to broadband. The public has not yet seen the draft 2019 Broadband Deployment Report, but the FCC published a news release about the key findings.
Based on the few statistics cited in the release, the FCC concluded that access to modern broadband networks has narrowed substantially and broadband is being deployed in a reasonable and timely basis. There are serious concerns with these findings. There are obvious problems with the reported data, and the FCC’s conclusion ignores the reality that millions of Americans still live without access to broadband.
The fact that the 2019 Broadband Deployment Report is again set to conclude that broadband is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion suggests that the FCC is relying on the same flawed methodology that overstates deployment numbers and paints too rosy a picture of who has access to broadband as well as the competitiveness of the market. In the news release, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai seems very confident that his FCC has led to a 25 percent drop in Americans lacking broadband — but there are two big problems with this tentative conclusion.
First, the FCC’s finding relies on Form 477 data. As we explained to to the FCC last year, the Commission’s continued reliance on flawed Form 477 data (which broadband providers self-report to the FCC on locations they provide service, without any independent verification) overstates deployment and paints an inaccurate and overly optimistic picture of where broadband is available, making unserved areas look served. Research by Free Press shows that the 2019 Report relies on data that includes significant over-reporting from one particular internet service provider, BarrierFree. BarrierFree provided broadband in zero census blocks as of June 30, 2017, but served nearly 1.5 million census blocks — nearly 62 million people — just six months later. These reported numbers alone resulted in a massive overstatement of the claimed changes in broadband deployment for the entire U.S. Subsequently, the carrier itself admitted that it inaccurately reported its deployment numbers into the FCC’s Form 477 database. Reports indicate that BarrierFree is under FCC investigation, and FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks has called on Chairman Pai not to proceed with the current draft report until this issue is solved. We agree that a vote on the 2019 Report should be delayed until the investigation is complete and a potentially more accurate report can emerge.
Second, an uptick in broadband deployment over the past year does not necessarily mean that broadband is being deployed in a timely fashion. The FCC claims that the private sector has responded to FCC reforms by deploying fiber to 5.9 million new homes in 2018. But even if this statistic is accurate (an uncertainty given Form 477 unreliability), it is unclear that the FCC — or at least its current leadership — can take credit for it. Chairman Pai showed no evidence in the news release connecting his policies and the increased deployment. As an Ars Technica article points out, while the Chairman claims the largest number ever recorded of fiber deployment to the home, this is likely the result of a multi-year fiber deployment that AT&T started during the Obama administration as a condition to AT&T acquiring DirecTV. Moreover, broadband deployment seems to have increased at similar rates during the Obama administration — an indication that consumer demand and network upgrade cycles, rather than regulatory (or deregulatory) policies, are the primary factor determining network investment and expansion.
It is untrue to claim that broadband is currently being deployed to all Americans. Millions of Americans continue to live without broadband, which is a serious concern in a world where the internet has become essential to everyday lives for accessing the economy, information, and communication. Underreporting the current state of broadband has significant consequences for those without access who are told that they have coverage and no longer need these resources. Further, other studies indicate the digital divide is much greater than what the FCC claims. For example, a 2018 Microsoft report found 162 million Americans lack access to connectivity at broadband speeds compared to the the FCC’s findings that 24.7 million lack access. Simply looking at year-to-year growth and parsing out (questionable) statistics is not the FCC’s role under Section 706. Rather, the statute requires the FCC to look at whether all Americans have access to broadband.
The FCC should not engage in such vigorous self-congratulation for closing the digital divide when millions of households in rural and urban communities still have no or limited access to high-speed service. Moreover, the FCC’s actions on a number of broadband-related issues including copper retirement, Lifeline, and spectrum have widened the digital divide or unnecessarily slowed deployment. When the 2019 Report is released, we must read it carefully to make sure that conclusions are backed up by real evidence (rather that inaccurate self-reported data by broadband providers). The FCC must be honest with the American people about the true state of broadband deployment. It is hard to grapple with the idea that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion because it clear to millions of Americans that it is not.