By the Blouin News Technology staff

FEATURE: The state of broadband in U.S.

by in Personal Tech.

A caricature of Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the F.C.C. (Source: DonkeyHotey/flickr.)

A caricature of Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the F.C.C. (Source: DonkeyHotey/flickr.)

The Federal Communications Commission’s stamp of approval on the 2015 Broadband Progress Report has set off a firestorm of debate, angered telecommunications companies, and prompted analysts to issue scathing reports on the F.C.C.’s conclusions. Officially voted on and adopted on Thursday, the report finds that 55 million Americans — 17% of the population — lack access to advanced broadband. Furthermore, the divide between urban and rural areas is stark: over half of all rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads service.

The report also notes that the gap is wider on tribal lands and in U.S. territories, with two-thirds of residents lacking access to those speeds, and 35% of schools across the U.S. lacking access to fiber networks capable of delivering such broadband. Overall, the gap in availability of broadband at 25/3 closed by only 3 percentage points last year, from 20% lacking access in 2012 to 17% in 2013. In early January, regarding the then-draft of the report, F.C.C. Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote:

To maximize the benefits of broadband for the American people, we not only need to facilitate innovation in areas like public safety and civic engagement, but also to make sure all Americans have advanced communications capabilities. The Commission has a statutory mandate to assess and report annually on whether broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.

Much of the criticism stems from the fact that the F.C.C. raised the definition of standard broadband from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps last January. ITIF Telecommunications Policy Analyst Doug Brake wrote in a blog post that the F.C.C.’s adoption of such a standard “shows the Commission as captured by the ideology of digital elites, focusing on policies it thinks will see bandwidth to support multiple HD video streams into homes with multiple HD televisions.”

Brake also echoes another popular criticism of the report, i.e., that it gives the F.C.C. the license to more strictly regulate broadband providers. Even as the report notes that progress on broadband quality isn’t what it should be in the U.S., it green-lights the Commission’s use of its authority to regulate ISPs “under its recently expanded section 706 jurisdiction,” writes Brake.

The ITIF is one of several groups that have unleashed criticism on the F.C.C.’s report; USTelecom, a phone industry lobbying group has also come forward saying the report is flawed. CenturyLink said: “The commission’s latest broadband progress report ignores the billions of dollars we invest annually to provide high-speed Internet service, under whatever definition the FCC uses, that our customers want and need.”

Another chief complaint is over the inclusion of mobile broadband. Brake writes that the F.C.C., “once again shifting the goalposts, seems to think that in order to meet the statutory definition of ‘advanced telecommunications capability’ consumers must have access to both fixed and mobile broadband.”

Yet, despite the furor, some companies have worked to go above and beyond the F.C.C.’s new definition. Verizon is phasing out its 25 Mbps fiber service and making 50 Mbps its default minimum speed. The company has been vocal about its opposition to the F.C.C.’s new standard for broadband, having unsuccessfully lobbied the Commission to keep the old definition, calling the new one “restrictive”. Verizon executives have come out saying that customer demand for higher speeds is what is leading the company in this direction of shuttering its old standards.

Whether or not the F.C.C. is indeed power-grubbing with these newly-approved statistics, the report is nonetheless an intriguing marker for the development of internet access in the U.S. While the public sector (F.C.C.) creates new definitions, the private sector (Verizon) is already looking toward the future of higher speeds for the general user. These changes speak to the U.S.’s shifting opinions on who should have web access, and just how fast it should run.