Critics dismiss new FCC report showing increased broadband access

Critics dismiss new FCC report showing increased broadband access
© Greg Nash

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Wednesday released a report showing the number of Americans with access to high-speed broadband has increased in recent years, figures that were dismissed by the commission's two Democrats and outside consumer groups who say the FCC's data-collection practices are too faulty to yield substantive conclusions.

According to the agency's broadband deployment report, the number of U.S. residents without access to a high-speed broadband connection decreased by more than 18 percent between 2017 and 2018. The FCC said 4.3 million of those who gained broadband access live in rural settings.

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The two Democratic commissioners at the FCC issued dissenting statements, saying it was fraudulent to claim that broadband is being deployed in a "reasonable and timely" manner.

"This report deserves a failing grade," Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. "It concludes that broadband deployment is reasonable and timely throughout the United States. This will come as news to millions and millions of Americans who lack access to high-speed service at home."

The FCC's annual broadband deployment report has been surrounded by controversy for some time, particularly after the commission was forced to revise a draft earlier this year that overestimated the number of Americans receiving high-speed broadband. The draft, circulated within the FCC, included faulty data from one company, Barrier Free, which erroneously stated it was serving millions more people than it actually was.

Watchdog group Free Press outlined in a filing how Barrier Free's inflated figures led to errors in the FCC's draft report, and the commission said they would fix the data after receiving revised numbers from the company.

Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, in his dissenting opinion, sharply criticized the FCC for its handling of the Barrier Free data.

"The facts surrounding Barrier Free’s erroneous filing and the 2019 Broadband Deployment Report raise serious questions about the way the FCC evaluates data," Starks said.

He pointed out that the report's conclusions remained largely unchanged after adjusting for the updated data.

"It’s incredible to me that an error this large — approximately 62 million in overstated broadband connections — didn’t materially change the report," Starks said.

The report, approved in a 3-2 vote along party lines, says the "digital divide" between urban and rural Americans is "narrowing" and that residents are receiving broadband "on a reasonable and timely basis." It also finds that broadband providers deployed fiber networks to 5.9 million new homes in 2018, the "largest number ever recorded."

But the data that the FCC uses to determine where broadband is being deployed has come under scrutiny, as critics say the commission should not rely so heavily on self-reported data from providers. The report asks broadband providers to account for any area where it could provide service rather than the areas where it does provide service.

"There is bipartisan and near universal agreement that the FCC’s method for determining how many Americans have broadband vastly overstates broadband deployment and access," Gigi Sohn, a former adviser at the FCC under the Obama administration, said in a statement.

The FCC is investigating how to fix its method of assessing broadband deployment amid heavy bipartisan scrutiny from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"The FCC should complete its long-pending proceeding to change the methodology by which carriers measure broadband access," Sohn said in the statement.