The FCC's Emergency Broadband Benefit program opened for enrollment today, just as a new study reveals the digital divide in the US is nearly three times larger than the federal agency's data indicates.
BroadbandNow released a report this week based on its own independent analysis showing that at least 42 million Americans do not have access to broadband. These findings line up with what the group found in 2020 as well; however, this year the researchers broadened their scope, manually checking the availability of wired or fixed wireless broadband for more than 58,000 addresses, as compared to 11,000 last year.
The most recent FCC data released in 2020 puts the number of Americans without broadband at 14.5 million, which is down from 21.5 million from their 2019 report.
In addition to highlighting the massive digital divide, the BroadbandNow researchers also found that all technologies are over-reported – including cable (17% over-reported), DSL (18%), fiber (23%) and fixed wireless (35%). Further, the technology reported by FCC data is incorrect for more than 12% of the addresses that do have broadband, according to the study.
BroadbandNow makes a series of recommendations to correct this, including overhauling the Form 477 census block qualifier. Instead, it urges the FCC's broadband mapping task force to recommend replacing it with "address-level granularity as the national requirement for provider self-reporting."
"By doing so, we would eliminate the gaps created by counting hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of Americans as one entity. This is especially true within the context of massive federal funding initiatives like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, where accuracy will be imperative in order for funding to be effective," says the report.
The researchers also recommend increasing the minimum speed standard to 100 Mbit/s download and 50 Mbit/s upload.
Unavailable and unaffordable
Meanwhile, another study out this week highlights the fact that even where broadband is available, it is still out of reach for many due to high costs.
Advocacy group Free Press, using information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that the average customer's monthly broadband bill increased 19% in the first three years of the Trump era; or more than four times the rate of inflation.
Further, it says, US ISPs grew their profits before and during the pandemic "by increasing actual charges at a pace far exceeding the rate of inflation." For example, it points to the average price paid by Comcast and Charter customers for residential Internet service increasing 15.9% and 15.4%, respectively, between 2016 and 2020, "double the rate of general inflation."
Contrary to what that data shows, last week at a congressional hearing about broadband equity and affordability, Republican members of the committee suggested that access to the Internet is now plenty affordable, and some people aren't adopting it simply because they don't want it.
"When it comes to broadband affordability, never have consumers gotten more for less. Internet prices have drastically dropped and speeds and competition have increased. This advancement is the result of FCC policies that streamline government regulations that have promoted competition and private sector investment in low-income programs and network upgrades," said Congressman Bob Latta (R-OH). "This did not happen because of government intervention and burdensome mandates, like those that are being suggested by the Biden-Harris administration. Yet despite these improvements in broadband offerings, some Americans still choose not to adopt broadband."
Others argued that the "choice" to not adopt broadband stems from it being unaffordable, digital literacy challenges and other barriers to access.
One way the federal government is seeking to increase access is with the Emergency Broadband Benefit, enacted by the FCC, which opened for enrollment today with over 800 ISPs participating. The temporary program allows qualifying households to receive a $50 monthly discount for broadband.
But Chris Lewis, a former FCC official and the current president and CEO of Public Knowledge, urged congressional leaders at the hearing last week to recognize the need to make broadband affordable after the pandemic as well.
"Congress recognized the affordability need when it authorized the Emergency Broadband Benefit last year. However, low-income Americans will still need support beyond the COVID crisis. It's time for Congress to create a long-term solution for low-income broadband support," said Lewis.
— Nicole Ferraro, contributing editor and host of "The Divide" and "What's the Story?" Light Reading