How much of the US has access to broadband? Depends on your definition of broadband

The Daily Yonder recently ran an interesting article by Brian Whitacre, Roberto Gallardo, Angel Siefer and Bill Callahan om their look at the FCC’s most recent Broadband Deployment Report.

The report shows an increase to access to broadband in the US from 89.4 percent in 2014 to 95 percent in 2016. It seems like a great leap and it is – but it’s not causing the celebrations one might expect and that’s because the FCC is including satellite in their definition of broadband. In fact the FCC reports that 2016 marked the first instance where 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps satellite service was reported in the Form 477 data use to compile their maps…

This is a significant increase from the 89.4 percent reported to have broadband availability in 2014 and the 81.2 percent reported in 2012. However, digging a bit deeper into this increase demonstrates a little-known fact about how the FCC defines “fixed” broadband and how the implications associated with that definition have changed. 

To the layman, the idea of a “fixed” broadband connection would likely be a traditional, wired line run directly to a business or residence. However, the FCC has historically defined some technologies as “fixed” that might surprise some people. These include fixed wireless connections, or wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), that are basically individual towers that provide line-of-sight service to customers. Additionally, the FCC includes satellite connections as “fixed” broadband. Each of these technologies (WISPssatellite) has been pushed as important for rural broadband. (The rationale behind this definition is that the consumer receives these technologies from a fixed point, as opposed to mobile technologies where the consumer may be in motion).

The implications in this change are big…

When all is said and done, we estimate that about 10.5 million were covered by 25/3 speeds thanks to satellite as of 2016. In other words, the number of Americans WITHOUT access to 25/3 speeds would nearly double if satellite technology was removed (from the 14 million claimed in the FCC’s report, to over 25 million). 75% of this population is classified as rural by the FCC.

The authors have some concerns…

While any technology with potential to deliver broadband is welcome, there are numerous concerns about classifying satellite as broadband. Satellite technology is highly susceptible to weather disruption; data latency is an issue; and data caps / cost are also concerning. In fact, one of the minimum requirements for providers seeking Connect America Funding (an FCC program to expand broadband services in unavailable areas) is that their latency cannot be higher than 100 millisecond per round trip – a threshold that excludes satellite providers.  Some individual states, however, are embracing satellite providers with their own broadband funding.    

The little known fact that the FCC includes satellite as part of its “fixed” broadband analysis raises questions about the adequacy of the FCC’s definitions and standards. Accurate data of existing broadband infrastructure is essential to local, state and national planning and public policy decisions. Issues of latency, pricing, data caps, and even length of contract are important elements of broadband that should be identified and defined in any publicly available broadband datasets.  

This entry was posted in FCC, Research, Rural, Satellite by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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