Some 4.3 million rural residents gained access to fixed broadband in 2017, but 21.3 million Americans still lack the service, according to a new Federal Communications Commission report.

The number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps dropped more than 18% in 2017, according to the 2019 Broadband Deployment Report released Wednesday. 

“We’ve been tackling this problem by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and promoting competition,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement.

Commissioner Mike O’Reilly, appointed by President Barack Obama, is glad more Americans are gaining access to broadband, but is dismayed by the report’s reliance on what he calls "purported 'insufficient evidence'" when evaluating fixed and mobile broadband usage.

“Data shows that fixed and mobile service are undoubtedly substitutable for many Americans,” O’Reilly said. “Fixed and mobile providers are in fierce competition with one another for customers.”

O’Reilly would like to see those markets evaluated together rather than separately.

Mike Romano, senior vice president of industry affairs and business development with NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, tells Agri-Pulse there’s a good amount of progress to be recognized in terms of additional investments made by operators in rural areas.

However, “there is certainly a need to do more and continue to advance broadband where it’s not but sustain it where it is,” Romano said.

Romano added NTCA suggested in comments the FCC examine not just the availability but the quality of broadband moving forward to support applications such as distance learning and telemedicine.

The broadband community and Congress have long shared concerns about the accuracy of FCC broadband deployment maps. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue went as far as calling them “fake news.”

“Issues with broadband mapping have gotten a lot of attention recently because [the number of Americans without access] could be even higher than what the government says,” outreach director for Connect Americans Now, Jon Conradi, tells Agri-Pulse.

A recent Microsoft report questioned the accuracy of FCC’s broadband maps.

In December 2018, the FCC launched an investigation into potential violations of mapping rules by service providers in submitting the data, and the challenge process has not yet concluded.

Among other highlights of the report, high-speed services of 250Mbps/25 Mbps broadband for rural Americans increased by 85.1 percent in 2017.

Broadband providers deployed fiber networks to 5.9 million new homes in 2018 and capital expenditures increased by approximately $1.5 billion in 2017, reversing the declines of 2015 and 2016.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the report deserved a failing grade and was nothing more than the agency patting itself on the back.

“The report will come as news to members of Congress who in hearing after hearing have chided this agency for its inability to deliver the promise of broadband to communities they represent,” Rosenworcel said.

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