Democrats criticize FCC broadband report

Republicans say the digital divide is narrowing. Democrats say that's news to the 21 million Americans who still don't have broadband.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

It seems the FCC's Republicans and Democrats are wired differently when it comes to interpreting broadband data.

James Martin/CNET

The Federal Communications Commission signed off on a report declaring that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a "timely fashion." But not everyone agrees.

On Wednesday, the FCC voted 3-2 to certify a revised draft of its 2019 Broadband Deployment Report. The three Republicans on the FCC, Chairman Ajit Pai, Brendan Carr and Michael O'Rielly supported the conclusions of the report. But Democrats Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks dissented.

The FCC's annual report, mandated by Congress, is supposed to be used by the agency to help form policies and regulation to promote the deployment of broadband. In recent years, the conclusion of the report has become politicized, with Democrats and Republicans breaking along party lines. This is the second year that the Republican-led agency has determined that broadband is being deployed in a timely fashion. But the previous, Democratic administration didn't come to that conclusion.

The Democrats pointed to the millions of people still without access to high-speed broadband as the main reason to give the agency a failing grade. Rosenworcel said in her dissent that the number of people without broadband is still significant and more needs to be done to ensure they get connected.

"Today the @FCC released a report concluding that our #broadband job is done," Rosenworcel said in a tweet. "This will come as news to millions and millions of Americans who are stuck on the wrong side of the #digitaldivide."   

The FCC's report found that the number of Americans without access to broadband speeds of at least 25 megabits per second decreased by more than 18 percent from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 21.3 million Americans at the end of 2017.

Starks said in his dissent that the report "reaches the wrong conclusion," and that it painted a "rosy picture"  of broadband deployment in the US that is "fundamentally at odds with reality."

Rosenworcel and Starks each criticized the flawed mapping methodology the agency currently uses for not getting an accurate picture of where broadband is and isn't.

The FCC builds its coverage maps using data that ISPs report twice a year in what's called Form 477. The biggest issue with this report is that it's based on census block reporting, which looks at 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.

The problem is well known, and the FCC is currently evaluating other methods for collecting more-accurate data.

"We need to stop relying on data we know is wrong," Rosenworcel said.

Republicans on the FCC agree that the maps need to be improved. And the agency is currently evaluating new processes. Still, Carr and O'Rielly said the data shows there's been significant progress made.

Carr pointed to the 40% increase in Internet speeds in the states and the US push toward 5G as signs the nation is making progress on its broadband goals. But he acknowledged that further efforts must be made.

"None of this is to say that our job at the FCC is done," Carr said. "As the report makes clear, far too many Americans remain unable to access high-speed broadband, and we have much more work left to do."

O'Rielly made a similar point in his statement. But he defended the report's conclusion.

"Our statutory mandate is not only to determine whether all Americans currently have access to advanced telecommunications capabilities," he said. "But also whether progress in deploying such services is proceeding at a reasonable and timely pace, and an affirmative response to the latter inquiry is completely consistent with the facts on the ground."

The FCC had released the revised draft of the report at the beginning of this month, after it was discovered that an earlier version of the report, released in February, included mistaken data from a broadband provider that had grossly overstated deployment data.

Starks said he was puzzled at how the Republican-led FCC could come to the same conclusions even after the mistake was corrected.

"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.