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FCC report finds broadband deployments still too slow

The FCC's annual broadband report, released Tuesday, says that 19 million Americans are still without broadband. And even though things are improving, the agency says, the pace of deployment is still too slow.

Roughly 19 million Americans still don't have broadband Internet, according to a report released Tuesday by the Federal Communications Commission.

This is the eighth year that the FCC has issued the report, which is a requirement of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. And for the third year in a row, the agency has found that broadband service is not being rolled out in a "reasonable and timely fashion." Still, the report sees an improvement over the year before, when the FCC found that 26 million Americans lacked broadband.

About 14.5 million of the 19 million Americans without broadband live in rural areas, according to the report. The FCC has been working to remedy the issue. Earlier this year, the FCC converted a $4.5 billion fund for rural telephone service into a fund that will subsidize expansion of broadband access.

The report also found that millions of Americans have access to broadband service but still choose not to subscribe because the cost of the service is either too high or they don't see a need for it.

Comcast, the largest cable broadband provider in the U.S., has implemented one of the largest programs designed to bring affordable broadband services to families with school-age children. The program also provides subsidized computer equipment and classes to improve digital literacy.

The report also noted the expansion of wireless 4G services. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski applauded the industry's quick deployment of these services. But he urged companies to continue to push forward.

"The U.S. has now regained global leadership in key areas of the broadband economy, including mobile, where we lead in mobile apps and 4G deployment;" he said in a statement. "But in this flat, competitive global economy, we need to keep driving toward faster broadband and universal access."

Expanding Internet access has been a top priority for the FCC since Genachowski took the helm after President Obama's election. In 2010, the agency presented a National Broadband Plan to Congress in which it outlined actions for expanding broadband service to every American. As part of the plan, the FCC said it would free up an additional 500MHz of wireless spectrum for wireless broadband services.

Congress has already approved an incentive auction where TV broadcasters will be allowed to auction excess spectrum for wireless broadband use. And the FCC has been working with other government agencies to free up additional spectrum now being used by the government.

Also on Tuesday, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology announced it will hold a hearing to discuss how to free up more federal spectrum for commercial uses.

"As the single largest spectrum user, the federal government could save taxpayers money and make more frequencies available to meet American consumers' growing demand for mobile broadband services," Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said in a statement.

The date of the hearing hasn't been set, but it will take place in September.

The two Republican commissioners on the FCC, Robert McDowell and Ajit Pai, dissented from the commission's findings. These commissioners also expressed concern that the report may be used to implement more regulation.

The consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge said the FCC had taken the right approach by concluding that broadband is not being deployed in a "reasonable and timely fashion."

But John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney for Public Knowledge, argued that the best way to guard against onerous regulation is to make sure there's plenty of competition, which he says is still lacking when it comes to broadband.

He criticized the FCC for its plan to approve a spectrum deal between Verizon and several cable operators, which Public Knowledge says will hurt competition.

"Unfortunately, the FCC is about to approve a deal between Verizon and several large cable companies that would allow Verizon to start selling cable broadband instead of its own DSL broadband in many markets," he said in a statement. "This is the clearest sign yet that broadband competition in the U.S. is far from what it should be. The FCC should work to improve broadband competition, which will in turn help its goals of broadband deployment and adoption."