Ajit Pai says the Federal Communications Commission’s annual broadband assessment will show that his deregulatory policies have substantially improved access in the United States. The annual report will also conclude that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely basis.
The FCC hasn’t released the full Broadband Deployment Report yet and won’t do so until the commission votes on whether to approve the draft version sometime in the next few weeks.
For now, the FCC has only issued a one-page press release with a few data points and some quotes from Chairman Pai in which he claims that his policy changes caused the improvements.
But Pai offered no proof of any connection between his policy decisions and the increased deployment. Moreover, broadband deployment improved at similar rates during the Obama administration, despite Pai’s claims that the FCC’s net neutrality rules harmed deployment during that period.
“For the past two years, closing the digital divide has been the FCC’s top priority,” Pai said yesterday. “We’ve been tackling this problem by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and providing efficient, effective support for rural broadband expansion through our Connect America Fund. This report shows that our approach is working. But we won’t rest until all Americans can have access to broadband and the 21st-century opportunities it provides to communities everywhere.”
Broadband growth was similar in prior years
The draft report’s data goes through the end of 2017. The top finding cited by the FCC is that “the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection meeting the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25Mbps/3Mbps has dropped by over 25 percent, from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017. Moreover, the majority of those gaining access to such high-speed connections, approximately 5.6 million, live in rural America, where broadband deployment has traditionally lagged.”
Pai’s press release also says that private Internet providers have “responded to FCC reforms by deploying fiber to 5.9 million new homes in 2018, the largest number ever recorded.”
As we noted, the rate of broadband expansion was similar during the Obama era. Last year’s annual report that included data through the end of 2016 found that the number of Americans with access to 25Mbps/3Mbps home Internet service increased from 286.9 million at year-end 2015 to 297.8 million at year-end 2016, rising from 89.6 percent of the population to 92.3 percent. In rural areas, the number of Americans with access to those speeds jumped from 37.8 million at year-end 2015 to 43.6 million at year-end 2016—a bigger jump than the one Pai touts in his new report. Pai cited the Connect America Fund as a source of new deployment in 2017, but that was also true during the Obama administration.
The number of Americans without access to 25Mbps/3Mbps broadband fell from 33.4 million at year-end 2015 to 24.8 million at year-end 2016, a drop of 26 percent, according to last year’s report. (As noted, Pai’s new press release says 26.1 million Americans lacked such access at year-end 2016, and it’s not clear why the 2016 number changed since Pai’s FCC released last year’s report.)
From last year’s report, here’s a look at how home broadband access improved in the years before Pai became FCC chair:
This year’s report will include data for higher-speed tiers than in the above chart. “The number of Americans with access to 100Mbps/10Mpbs fixed broadband increased by nearly 20 percent, from 244.3 million to 290.9 million,” Pai’s press release said. “The number of Americans with access to 250Mbps/50Mbps fixed broadband grew by over 45 percent, to 205.2 million, and the number of rural Americans with access to such service more than doubled.”
The annual report’s data is based on the extensive Form 477 data submissions Internet service providers must make on a regular basis.
Pai took credit for Obama-era gains
Pai has a track record of taking credit for broadband deployments that he had nothing to do with. In the same report last year, Pai’s FCC claimed that its repeal of net neutrality rules and other deregulatory actions caused a ton of new broadband deployment. But as we’ve noted, last year’s report only included data through December 2016—and Pai became chairman in January 2017.
Last year’s report pointed to four “new” deployments to support Pai’s argument. But as we reported at the time, three of these four deployments were planned during the Obama administration, and two were funded directly by the FCC before Pai was the chair. All four came from ISPs that had announced broadband expansions before Pai took over, with the net neutrality rules in place.
Pai’s new press release said that 2017 brought rising “capital expenditures by broadband providers” after declines in 2015 and 2016 but provided no numbers. As we’ve reported, major ISPs such as Comcast, Charter, and Verizon have all announced declines in capital expenditures.
Pai’s net neutrality repeal was finalized in June 2018, so even this year’s report—with data through 2017—won’t reveal if the repeal had any impact unless Pai offers some additional data sources.
“Millions” still lack high-speed service
The annual report stems from Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, in which Congress required the FCC to encourage broadband deployment to all Americans and to make a regular determination of “whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”
If the FCC finds that broadband isn’t being deployed quickly enough, it has to “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market,” the law says. The Obama-era FCC regularly found that broadband deployment wasn’t happening quickly enough, while Pai has now declared the opposite two years in a row. Pai’s net neutrality repeal order also claimed that Section 706’s provisions “directing the Commission to encourage deployment of advanced telecommunications capability” do not provide any real regulatory authority.
Pai’s conclusion that broadband deployment is happening quickly enough was disputed yesterday by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who is part of the commission’s Democratic minority.
“I beg to differ,” Rosenworcel wrote on Twitter. “Millions of households—in rural and urban communities—have no access to high-speed service. That’s a fact.”