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Fiber on the rise: What the FCC's new data tells us about broadband in the US

Twice a year, every home internet provider in the country discloses key coverage metrics to the FCC. Here's what we learned from the most recent round of data.

fcc-isp-home-internet-provider-database-coverage-map
Ry Crist/CNET

Every six months, the Federal Communications Commission releases updated data on the respective coverage of every internet provider in the US. That includes coverage maps as well as metrics on the types of technologies being used, the number of customers that fall into each provider's footprint, and the specific upload and download speeds available to those customers, should they choose to sign up. The latest update went live earlier this month, and brings the database up to date as of December 2020.

In spite of some notorious shortcomings, that FCC data is of particular interest to us on the CNET Home team as we continue evaluating and reviewing every major internet provider in the US. That's because those FCC disclosures force each provider to show their cards and offer us a glimpse at how the scope of their coverage is changing -- or not. As many of us continue to push our networks to the max working from home amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the new omicron variant, tracking the progress of the tech titans providing our internet connections feels more relevant than ever.

To that end, here's a quick rundown of the major takeaways from the FCC's latest update, and what they tell us about the current state of broadband in America.

Ry Crist/CNET

More of the same from the usual suspects

The list of the largest internet providers in the US hasn't changed much over the past few years. As of last December, which is as recent as the FCC's database gets, satellite providers Hughesnet and Viasat were the only ISPs that can claim to offer service to 100% of the country. Meanwhile, AT&T, Comcast Xfinity and Charter Spectrum were the only other providers that offered service to more than 30% of the US; Verizon, CenturyLink and Frontier were the only others with footprints covering more than 10% of the US. All of that was true in the previous FCC report, as well, and all of it was true five years ago, too.

Still, all of the aforementioned providers saw the percentage of US customers within their coverage maps tick up by at least 1% during that span. Of the non-satellite providers, it was AT&T that saw its percentage rise the most, with its internet footprint growing to cover an additional 2.16% of the US population since 2016. However, the company also saw a drop of roughly half a percentage point between this report and the previous FCC data drop in June 2020, just six months earlier. None of the other major providers reported any drop at all between those two reports, which makes AT&T something of an outlier.

AT&T didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest FCC disclosures, but we'll update this space if and when we hear back.

Other providers, including Cox Communications, Windstream, WideOpenWest (aka WOW) and Mediacom have all seen incremental gains since 2016, as well. Among smaller providers, Sparklight (formerly Cable One) saw its pool of potential customers increase by about 50%, from 1.01% of the country to 1.49%.

By percentage, the largest gain among the providers we're tracking actually goes to Google Fiber. Though it's never been available to serve more than a tiny fraction of the US, Alphabet's internet service saw its customer base grow by more than 100% between 2016 and 2020, from 0.46% in June of 2016 to 0.98% in June of 2020. In December of 2020, the service finally crossed the 1% mark, with a footprint that covers 1.05% of the US population.

"We're building on our mission to connect more people to fast, reliable internet in Google Fiber cities across the country," a spokesperson for Google Fiber said earlier this year. "Google Fiber construction teams are actively working to build out our networks in each one of our existing Fiber cities, and we're expanding to new neighboring communities in some of those cities."

The FCC's first coverage map for Starlink doesn't look like much because it shows where the service was available as of December 2020, during the earliest days of its beta launch. Service was limited to select pockets within a set latitudinal band across the northern US at that time, but it's likely that the map saw significant expansion in 2021. We'll know for sure with future FCC releases.

FCC/Mapbox

The debut of Starlink data

As of December, the FCC's database now includes figures for Starlink, a new satellite internet venture from Elon Musk's SpaceX. The service began its beta launch at the end of 2020, so the latest FCC figures, dated December of 2020, give us our first real look at what Starlink's coverage map looked like in the early days of service.

Specifically, Starlink's nascent coverage map shows tiny pixels of coverage throughout a specific latitudinal band across the northern US, with service available to less than one-tenth of one percent of the US population. Again, that's how things looked one year ago, when the service was just getting started.

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Starlink's satellite internet coverage expanded in 2021, but we'll need to wait until next year to see that growth reflected in the FCC's database.

John Kim/CNET

Starlink saw steady growth throughout 2021, so it's all but certain that we'll see that coverage map expand significantly with future FCC releases. In February, the still-in-beta internet service hit 10,000 users, and after a series of successful launches, the number of satellites in Starlink's constellation is nearing 2,000. During a talk at Mobile World Congress in June, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that Starlink would be available worldwide except at the North and South Poles starting in August. That echoed SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell who, weeks earlier, told an audience at the Macquarie Technology Summit that Starlink would reach global serviceability sometime this fall.

"We've successfully deployed 1,800 or so satellites, and once all those satellites reach their operational orbit we will have continuous global coverage, so that should be like [the] September time frame," Shotwell said.

Future FCC disclosures about Starlink's speeds and the true scope of its coverage will give us a much better look at how the service actually grew amidst claims like those, so we'll keep an eye out for them and update this piece when the time comes. In the meantime, you can read more about our early, hands-on impressions of Starlink's satellite internet service here.

At the start of 2020, only four providers offered fiber-optic internet plans to at least 30% of their customers. Now, in spite of a dramatic data correction for WOW (yellow), the end-of-year number sits at six.

Ry Crist/CNET

Fiber is (sort of) on the rise...

With gigabit speeds that far surpass most other internet technologies, as well as upload speeds that are just as fast as they are for downloads, fiber-optic internet (fiber, for short) is widely considered to be the ideal mode of connecting to the web. The problem is that it isn't available everywhere -- for the most part, providers have focused on building out fiber networks in population-dense regions around America's major cities, leaving rural internet customers out of the mix.

That said, the category has seen some definite growth in recent years, particularly in 2020. At the start of the year, only four major providers -- Google Fiber, Verizon Fios, WOW and Frontier -- offered fiber service to at least 30% of serviceable addresses within their respective coverage maps. By June, the number had jumped to seven, with CenturyLink, AT&T and newcomer Ziply Fiber joining the mix.

However, that number fell to six in the December 2020 report, and that's because of WOW. In June, when the company's fiber percentage suddenly shot up all the way from 30% to more than 95%, a WOW spokesperson cautioned CNET that the figure was likely inaccurate. Now, the updated data from December 2020 corrects the mistake, and brings WOW's fiber percentage all the way down to 2.5%.

"Our data has been verified and a mistake was found in our 2019 reporting which was reflected in the mid-year 2020 FCC availability map," a representative for WOW tells CNET. "The correction has been made and should be reflected as such going forward. Our FTTH percentage will be monitored and adjusted to account for deployment changes throughout our markets. WOW provides the best reporting possible in any attempt at providing information to public entities."

Meanwhile, after four years of growth, CenturyLink saw a drop in its fiber percentage, too. Though not as dramatic a drop as WOW, the number still fell more than 15 points, from 38.34% in June of 2020 to 22.67% in December of 2020. Still, CenturyLink claims that its fiber share is continuing to expand.

"Quantum Fiber is currently available in about 50% of our footprint, including Denver, Portland, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Springfield, Missouri, with additional cities planned throughout 2021," a spokesperson for CenturyLink parent company Lumen told CNET earlier this year. We've reached out to CenturyLink to ask if the company attributes last year's December dip to a reporting error or to other shifts in the footprint, and will update this space when we hear back.

Elsewhere, Windstream went from offering fiber to a scant 1.7% of customers in 2016 to offering it to 30.84% of them by the end of 2020, essentially taking CenturyLink's spot in that 30-percent-and-up club. Some even smaller providers, including Metronet, Sonic and Consolidated Communications, boast sizable fiber shares, as well.

Of all of the internet providers that offer service to at least 10% of the US population (including satellite providers omitted from this chart), Verizon (green) is the only one that offers upload speeds faster than 25Mbps to a majority of its customers.

Ry Crist/CNET

...but upload speeds are still much too slow

All of that said, upload speeds from most providers remain much slower than most customers would probably like. That's largely because fiber is really the only mode of home internet capable of hitting triple-digit upload speeds, and as mentioned earlier, fiber is far from universally available.

According to the FCC, across all providers that offered home internet service to at least 10% of the population in 2020, only one -- Verizon -- offered upload speeds faster than 25Mbps to at least half of its customer base. Though the FCC only requires upload speeds of 3Mbps to qualify for its underwhelming definition of broadband, you'll want a connection that's a lot faster than that if you're a regular in video conferences, an active gamer or if you ever need to upload large files to the web. That's especially true if you're connecting over Wi-Fi, since your upload speeds will dip noticeably if you're working wirelessly a few rooms away from your router.

Expect upload speeds to serve as a growing point of focus in the coming years, particularly as bandwidth-heavy technologies like augmented reality continue to emerge. It's a real question as to whether or not ISPs will keep up as demand for durable uploads rises. In March, a spokesperson for cable internet giant Comcast, which offers upload speeds no faster than 35Mbps, said that the company would continue to evaluate internet usage patterns, but had nothing to share regarding potential boosts to upstream traffic. In an especially frustrating turn earlier this year, Altice announced that it would cut the upload speeds of its two cable internet brands, Optimum and Suddenlink, in order to align with slower competitors. 

Meanwhile, a new map for mobile

One last thing worth keeping an eye on in the FCC's newly updated broadband database is the debut of new coverage maps for mobile carriers. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called the tool a "first-of-its-kind wireless coverage map" for the agency, and while the data is currently limited to 4G LTE voice and data service from just four carriers, Rosenworcel promised that more is to come.

Though the FCC's mobile map wasn't updated for December, that data could become increasingly relevant for home internet service as 5G continues to spread across the country. A number of carriers, including T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T already offer both 5G and 4G LTE home internet service in select cities, and with some plans, the upload speeds can be faster than what you'd get with cable.

Along with our broader focus on broadband, expect us to keep an eye on those new cellular home internet options as they continue to roll out (and expect us to test them out as soon as we're able, as we've already done with T-Mobile). With plans like those already up and running in select regions, it's a safe bet that we'll learn more about them in future FCC database releases, as well.

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