The FCC is required by Congress to annually “determine whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion,” something theFCC’s latest broadband status report (pdf) suggests we’re still doing a relatively crappy job at.
According to the FCC, 34 million Americans, or roughly 10% of the country, “still lack access to fixed broadband at the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25 Mbps for downloads, 3 Mbps for uploads.” Two thirds of the country still lacks the choice of more than one broadband provider at speeds of 25 Mbps, and 41% of schools have yet to hit the FCC’s goals of providing speeds of 100 Mbps to students. The FCC also notes the United States is 16th out of the top 34 developed countries when it comes to uniform broadband penetration, thanks in large part to our size.
As such, unsurprisingly, things are notably worse if you live in rural and/or tribal areas:
Keep in mind that most of this data is provided directly by the nation’s largest ISPs. Those ISPs have a vested interest in minimizing the appearance of any market failure, and by and large their coverage claims frequently aren’t fact-checked by regulators. That’s why, time and time again, consumers will be told that a broadband provider services their address, only to be told later (sometimes after a home sale) that their address cannot receive service. In other words, things are likely worse than the FCC data indicates. Either way, the FCC concludes:
“While the nation continues to make progress in broadband deployment, advanced telecommunications capability is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion to all Americans”
Note that in typical FCC fashion, the FCC likes to focus on the digital divide (politically sexy), but can never be bothered to focus on how much broadband service costs thanks to limited competition (politically risky). Historically, ISPs provide pricing data to the FCC but, at industry behest, the agency refuses to make it public. So between suspect coverage and speed data and non-existent pricing data, neither the FCC’s reports nor our nation’s $300 million broadband coverage map provide (quite intentionally) quality insight into the real state of the broadband market.
Still, if the FCC concludes broadband isn’t being deployed in a “reasonable and timely fashion,” the FCC is required to act to correct said problem. And to the credit of current FCC boss Tom Wheeler, the agency has probably done more on this front than the last four FCC leaders combined. Wheeler led the charge to reclassify ISPs under Title II, pass new net neutrality rules, improve middle mile network funding, and redefine broadband as something 25 Mbps or faster.
Still, the biggest problem remains that ISPs won’t upgrade most of America because they simply don’t believe it’s profitable to do so. One solution to that is community broadband or public/private partnerships, but as we’ve covered at length, the same ISPs refusing to wire rural America have lobbied for protectionist laws that make sure nobody else can either. That’s why last year the FCC took aim at such state laws, and was immediately attacked (under the pretense of “states rights”) by mega-ISP loyal politicians for its trouble.
As with so many issues, Congress is so soaked with campaign contributions and lobbyist disinformation, fixing the broadband industry’s problems on the federal level remains a Sisyphean task. But there remains a smaller-scale solution to fix what ails our connectivity woes, and it starts with gutting protectionist state law — and emboldening the local, grassroot efforts to rise up against the status quo.