FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel says the COVID-19 crisis shows just how flawed the agency’s recent conclusion is that the digital divide is narrowing. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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The Federal Communications Commission says the broadband industry is making great progress in getting Americans connected to high-speed internet service. But Democrats at the agency say that isn’t so. 

Last week, the agency released its 2020 Broadband Progress Report, which showed a reduction in the digital divide. The report concluded that broadband is being delivered to all Americans in a reasonable and timely way. The three Republicans serving on the FCC supported the findings. But the two Democrats didn’t.

“From where I sit, nothing could be further from the truth,” Jessica Rosenworcel, one of those Democrats serving as a commissioner on the FCC, said in an op-ed on CNN Business on Wednesday. She said the global coronavirus pandemic, which has forced millions of Americans to work, go to school and get medical care from their homes via broadband, tells a much different story about internet connectivity in America.

“It has become painfully clear that not everyone in the United States has adequate Internet access,” she continued. 

The FCC’s report issued, last Friday, found the number of Americans lacking access to fixed broadband dropped 14% in 2018, with fewer than 18 million people now lacking broadband access. The report also found that more than 85% of Americans have access to broadband services with speeds topping 250 Mbps for downloads and 25 Mbps uploads. That’s a 47% increase from 2017, the FCC’s report indicates. 

The report also indicates that the number of people who do not have access to 4G LTE mobile broadband service with median download speeds of10 Mbps declined by about 54% between 2017 and 2018. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who grew up in rural Kansas, said he has a “deep commitment to expanding broadband to all corners of the country.” He added that he’s made closing the digital divide a priority in his administration.

“I’m proud of the progress that we have made,” he said in a statement last week when the report was published. “From 2016 to 2018, the number of Americans without access to 25/3 Mbps fixed broadband service fell by more than 30%. And in 2018 and 2019, the United States set consecutive records for new fiber deployment, with the number of homes passed by fiber increasing by 5.9 million and 6.5 million, respectively.”

Rosenworcel and fellow Democrat on the FCC Geoffrey Starks criticized the report, stating the data used to come to these conclusions was flawed. It’s an opinion shared by other critics, like former FCC counsel Gigi Sohn, who said the FCC’s conclusion “defies reality.”

“Over the past six weeks it has become painfully apparent to the press, policymakers and the general public that tens of millions of Americans don’t have access to high-speed broadband Internet service,” she said. “Yet Chairman Pai has decided that it’s time to take a victory lap even as millions of children cannot do their schoolwork, workers cannot telecommute and families cannot connect to friends, neighbors or each other during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Problems with the data

The issues the FCC has with its data about broadband usage and deployment are well recognized, even among Republicans on the FCC and in Congress. 

The first problem is that the data that’s collected is self-reported by the carriers. Last year, the FCC had to revise its broadband report after it was discovered that a wireline carrier erroneously overstated its coverage, skewing results. The mistake exaggerated progress in closing the digital divide. Late last year, the FCC also called out wireless carriers Verizon, T-Mobile and US Cellular for overstating their wireless coverage. As a result, the FCC reworked a $4.5 billion subsidy program to bring 4G LTE to rural communities, because the data was so skewed. The carriers say they were reporting what the FCC had requested.

But the bigger problem with the data that the FCC collects to determine where broadband exists and where it doesn’t has to do with the parameters the FCC sets for collecting the data. Currently, broadband providers report coverage based on census blocks, the smallest geographic area used by the US Census Bureau. If service is available in one part of a census block, the entire block is considered to have broadband. In rural areas, that home may be the only place with internet service for miles around. 

Last month, President Donald Trump signed into law bi-partisan legislation that would help improve the quality of the data the FCC collects on broadband deployment. 

Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly acknowledged in his statement that flawed data was used in the FCC’s analysis. But he said he still believes the conclusion of the report, stating that it’s “undoubtedly accurate” that broadband is “being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” 

Rosenworcel said in her op-ed that the FCC shouldn’t trust this data to conclude that broadband providers and policy makers are doing enough to close the digital divide. While the agency reported that 18 million Americans don’t have access to broadband, she pointed to other studies that suggest the true number of people without broadband could exceed 42 million with some suggesting the number is as high as 162 million. In addition to getting access to rural parts of the country, she also called on the agency to address issues facing Americans living in urban markets, where millions of people also lack connectivity. 

She said that with schools around the country closed and more than 50 million students distance learning, the lack of access is a huge problem for school-aged children who can’t access basic education. 

“It’s not just a problem in rural America,” she said. “It’s a challenge in urban America too, where in cities like Detroit, more than half of the students live in homes without broadband.”

She said its critical the FCC gets a true accounting of the digital divide so that it knows where to invest resources, especially as the US looks to rebuild the economy following the devastating effects of the COVID-19 closures.

“When we get to the other side of this crisis, we need to rebuild our economy so it works for all,” she said. “Closing the digital divide is the right place to start.”

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