According to the Federal Communications Commission, 90 percent of Americans have access to broadband Internet access service at the FCC’s benchmark speeds of 25 Mbps for downloads/3 Mbps for uploads.

But the FCC also found that 34 million Americans still lack access to the benchmark speeds, and despite significant progress in recent years to expand broadband service, the percentages of people without adequate access are substantially higher among those living in rural and Tribal areas.  Those findings are among the key findings of the FCC’s latest Broadband Progress Report released Jan. 28, 2016.

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to investigate the availability of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans, and to

determine whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

As in past years, in answering that question the FCC examined not only physical deployment, but other factors such as price, quality, and consumer adoption—all of which the FCC determined were necessary to determine if deployment was reasonable and timely.  However, the 2016 report differs from past reports by relying primarily on Form 477 data from providers.

The FCC retained the 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload (25 Mbps/3 Mbps) benchmark for broadband that it previously set for fixed services, and declined to set non-speed performance benchmarks in its report.  For the first time, the FCC also included mobile broadband service in its general assessment of advanced telecommunications capability.  However, the FCC declined to set a speed benchmark for mobile service, finding that the current record was insufficient to do so.

Using the 25 Mbps/3 Mbps benchmark to assess the general availability of fixed broadband, the FCC’s made a number of findings, including the following:

  • 34 million Americans, or 10 percent of the population, don’t have access to the benchmark speeds of 25 Mbps for downloads/3 Mbps for uploads. That number was an improvement from the prior year in which 17 percent of the population was without high-speed access.
  • Americans living in rural areas or on Tribal lands continue to have disproportionately poor access. Numbers improved from the prior year, when more than half of both rural and Tribal residents lacked high-speed access.  Still, the report found 39 percent of rural residents and 41 percent of those on Tribal lands lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service, as compared to just four percent of urban Americans.  For persons living in an area that was both rural and Tribal , 68 percent lacked access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service, compared to 14 percent on Tribal lands considered urban.
  • Low rates were also noted among residents of U.S. Territories, where the FCC found that 66 percent of Americans (and 98 percent of the population in rural areas) lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps broadband.
  • Where 25 Mbps/ 3 Mbps service is available, Americans living in rural and urban areas adopt broadband at similar rates, 28 percent in rural areas and 30 percent in urban areas.
  • No fixed satellite providers reach the 25 Mbps/ 3 Mbps benchmark.

Based on the FCC’s findings, its 2016 report concludes that broadband is not, in fact, being deployed in a “reasonable and timely fashion,” and called for more work in both the public and private sectors to improve access.

With respect to broadband deployment in schools, the FCC noted that schools’ bandwidth needs continue to grow.  Nonetheless, the FCC retained its short-term benchmark of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff, and its long-term benchmark of 1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff.

According to the report, recent E-rate data shows that 20 million more students have access to high-speed broadband than two years ago.  But the order also noted that approximately 41 percent of schools, representing 47 percent of the nation’s students, did not meet the Commission’s short-term goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff, and that just over two-thirds of district leaders think they need more broadband in the next 18 months.  On that basis, the FCC concluded that broadband is not being deployed to schools in a “reasonable and timely fashion.”

The report also noted progress by the Commission, in its recent 2015 Lifeline Further Notice towards supporting broadband service through the Lifeline program and its request for comments on how the Lifeline program can address the “homework gap” between households with school-age children that have home broadband access and low-income households that lack such access.

Commissioner O’Rielly issued a dissent to the report, asserting that much progress has been made since the last report, characterizing the FCC’s benchmarks as premature and artificially high, and arguing that the FCC has erroneously treated E-rate goals as benchmarks.  Commissioner O’Rielly’s dissent also takes issue with the FCC’s conclusion that access to advanced telecommunications requires access to both fixed and mobile service, and suggests that “no amount of progress will ever be good enough for a Commission that is bent on regulating broadband at all cost.”

Commissioner Pai’s separate dissent took a different approach, arguing that the gaps the FCC identified in broadband access are evidence that past FCC efforts to address the issue have failed, and that costly FCC programs aimed at expanding broadband deployment have been ineffective.  After concluding that “American taxpayers aren’t getting the bang they deserve for their hard-earned bucks,” Commissioner Pai’s dissent asserts that “the Internet should be unfettered by federal or state regulation so that entrepreneurs within the network and on the edge can innovate without permission.”