FCC commissioners remain divided on broadband progress report’s merits

FCC commissioners (FCC)
Commissioners remain divided on the results of the new 2018 broadband deployment progress report. (Image: FCC)

The FCC determined in its 2018 Broadband Deployment Report that the overturning of the 2015 Title II order for net neutrality will help to enable large telcos and cable operators to make capital investments to enhance broadband availability, but overall, the commission remains divided on its findings.

According to the report, broadband deployment progress “slowed dramatically” after the Title II Order that regulated broadband Internet access service as a utility, was passed under the Tom Wheeler-led FCC in 2015.  

By overturning the order, the FCC said in the report that it has removed regulatory barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and restoring the longstanding bipartisan light-touch regulatory framework for broadband. The report also assesses the impact of the Commission’s policies on broadband deployment.

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Although the report concludes that the Commission is now encouraging broadband deployment on a reasonable and timely basis, it finds that far too many consumers can’t get broadband service. The FCC said it must continue its work to encourage deployment of broadband to all Americans, including those in rural areas, on Tribal lands, and in the nation’s schools and libraries.

“The report indicates that the pace of both fixed and mobile broadband deployment declined dramatically in the two years following the prior Commission’s Title II Order,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, in a statement. “However, the report also discusses how, over the course of the past year, the current Commission has taken steps to reduce barriers to infrastructure investment and promote competition in the broadband marketplace. Taken together, these policies indicate that the current FCC is now meeting its statutory mandate to encourage the deployment of broadband on a reasonable and timely basis.”

Unsurprisingly, the new report was praised by USTelecom, an organization that represents the large telcos.

Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, said that public policies can either enhance “deployment or unnecessarily slow it down.”

“This report recognizes the harmful impact that restrictive regulations, and uncertainty, can have on investment and deployment,” Spalter said. “Broadband providers are committed to connecting their communities, and smart policies are critical to bridging the digital divide.”

A divided commission

Like overturning the net neutrality order, commission members aren’t all in agreement that the report represents the reality of broadband deployments.

FCC Commissioners Brendan Carr and Michael O’Rielly joined Chairman Pai in support of the report.

O’Rielly said in his statement the report provides proof that service providers are enhancing broadband availability to more users.

“By any account, the picture with regards to the availability of advanced telecommunications services (i.e., broadband) is very robust and growing,” O’Rielly said. “In examining the data, it indicates that 95.6 percent of all Americans have access to fixed broadband with speeds exceeding the 25/3 Mbps threshold that was set by the last Commission. And this excludes consumers that have service at or above 10/1 Mbps, which is a standard supported by my fellow Commissioners for purposes of our universal service High-Cost programs.”

However, FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn spoke out against the report, saying that the facts and findings are flawed.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in her statement that to conclude the deployment of broadband to all Americans is reasonable and timely “is ridiculous—and irresponsible.”

“Today there are 24 million Americans without access to broadband,” Rosenworcel said. “There are 19 million Americans in rural areas who lack the ability to access high-speed services at home. There are 12 million school-aged children who are falling into the Homework Gap because they do not have the broadband at home they need for nightly schoolwork. Ask any one of them if they think the deployment of the most essential digital age infrastructure is reasonable and timely and you will get a resounding “No.”

Rosenworcel added that the FCC should also raise the broadband standard to 100 Mbps.

“It’s past time for the FCC to go big and update its national broadband standard from 25 Megabits to 100 Megabits,” Rosenworcel said.

Tracking the Title II era

A key point of contention among the commissioners is the data.

Between the years 2012 to 2014, according to the FCC’s report, two years before the Title II Order was passed, wireline broadband access was deployed to 29.9 million people who did not initially have access, including 1 million people on Tribal lands.

Following the adoption of the Title II Order, the FCC claimed that new deployments dropped 55%, reaching only 13.5 million people, including only 330,000 people on tribal lands.

Likewise, the FCC noted similar gains in wireless broadband. Between 2012 to 2014, mobile LTE broadband was newly deployed to 34.2 million people, including 21.5 million rural Americans. However, since the passing of the Title II-based net neutrality order, new mobile deployments dropped 83%, reaching only 5.8 million more Americans, including only 2.3 million more rural Americans.

From 2012 to 2014, the number of Americans without access to both fixed terrestrial broadband and mobile broadband declined from 72.1 million to 34.5 million. But according to the FCC report, the pace was nearly three times slower after the adoption of the 2015 Title II Order, with only 13.9 million Americans newly getting access to both over the next two years.

Clyburn said in her statement that there’s a clear divide between the availability of various broadband speed tiers.

“The statistics are glaringly clear: persistent digital and opportunities divides remain for far too many in our nation,” Clyburn said. “With respect to fixed 25 Mbps/3 Mbps and 10 Mbps/3 Mbps mobile LTE, approximately 44 million Americans lack access to both services. A whopping 66.2% of Americans living in rural and Tribal areas—as compared to 2.1% of Americans living in urban areas—still lack access to fixed 25/3 broadband. These are tens of millions of our fellow citizens who lack access to broadband putting them at a severe disadvantage when it comes to robust opportunities in education, healthcare, government services, and civic participation.”