FCC report reveals 25/3 availability gap more pronounced in rural communities

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently set a fire in the service provider community by proclaiming 25/3 Mbps should be the definition of broadband, and the FCC's new 2015 Broadband Progress Report shows that availability of such speeds is nearly nonexistent in rural areas.

While the new benchmark reflects the reality that consumers are accessing more bandwidth-hungry applications in the home, including streaming video, over multiple devices, the FCC said a "significant digital divide remains between urban and rural America" in terms of the availability of 25/3 Mbps services.

In urban areas, only 8 percent of Americans can't access a 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service. However, that contrasts sharply with rural areas where 53 percent of consumers (22 million) lack access to a 25/3 Mbps connection. Overall, the FCC report said that 17 percent of all Americans (55 million people) lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service. 

"In rural areas, more than half – 53 percent – lack access to broadband at the new benchmark; in Tribal lands, it's almost two-thirds – 63 percent – that lack access," Wheeler said in a statement. "The disparity persists at all speeds. For example, at our previous benchmark of 4 Mbps/1 Mbps, 20 percent of Americans in rural areas cannot get that level of service. In urban areas, only 1 percent lack access to that service. Sadly, we wouldn't be where we need to be on broadband deployment to all Americans, even if we hadn't increased the benchmark speed."

Source: FCC

What's driving the need for a 25/3 minimum broadband connection is the growing amount of devices consumers are using in the home. An average household has seven Internet-connected devices, according to Verizon and comments filed by the Fiber to the Home Council with video being the dominant and bandwidth-intensive application.

According to Sandvine's 2014 Global Internet Phenomena Report, streaming video and audio comprises 63 percent of downstream traffic, with each video stream requiring between 5-25 Mbps. Demand for 25/3 Mbps more than quadrupled from 2011 to 2013, from 7 percent to 29 percent of consumers adopting where it is available.

Despite the progress service providers have made in rolling out broadband to more customers through the Connect America Fund programs, the report found that these rollouts are "not occurring broadly enough or quickly enough."

However, other FCC commissioners disagree with the idea that there's a strong demand for a 25/3 Mbps connection.

"Seventy one percent of consumers who can purchase fixed 25 Mbps service—over 70 million households—choose not to," wrote Pai. "And before today, 58 million Americans thought they had subscribed to mobile broadband. But now the FCC says they're getting something else."

Consumer broadband is only part of the broadband availability problem. The FCC report also highlights the fact that 35 percent of schools across the United States still can't access fiber-based networks that can be used as a foundation to power new digital-learning tools like videoconferencing with universities and online grading. In its July 2014 E-Rate Modernization order, the FCC found that schools, particularly those in rural areas, lack access to 100 Mbps, while even fewer have access the 1 Gbps per 1,000 users long-term goal it set.

For more:
- see the FCC report (.pdf)

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