Internet service providers have made significant progress in expanding their network footprints to deliver broadband service to a larger swath of the population, but significant gaps in coverage and adoption persist, according to a new report from the Federal Communications Commission.
The report is the FCC's eighth survey of the broadband landscape, a task it was given in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which directed the agency to assess whether broadband "is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion." Despite the progress that the commission observed in many sectors of the industry, the report concluded that the current rate of broadband deployment fails to meet the "reasonable and timely" criteria.
Nevertheless, the report acknowledged the efforts of providers to increase speeds and broaden coverage with 4G wireless service, fiber and cable's DOCSIS 3.0 technology.
"Over the past year, the private and public sectors have taken significant and substantial steps to accelerate the deployment and availability of broadband," the authors of the report wrote, touting the billions of dollars that providers have poured into their networks and the efforts within the agency itself to reform existing programs and set up new ones to promote broadband.
"This year's report reflects the huge strides that both the private and public sector have made to extend broadband, while also explaining that there's more work to do," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement.
The FCC approved the findings of the report by a vote of 3-2, with Republican commissioners Robert McDowell and Ajit Pai dissenting.
"In reality, the growth of broadband deployment in America, especially regarding the mobile marketplace, has been swift and strong," McDowell said in a statement. McDowell argued that the report ignored significant factors in the mobile sector concerning investment, competition, speeds and pricing, calling the study's conclusion "predetermined."
Overall, the FCC found that roughly 19 million Americans, or 6 percent of the population, still do not have access to broadband service.
The digital divide is especially pronounced in rural areas, where low population densities have kept service providers from expanding their networks. In those areas, 14.5 million people, or about a quarter of the rural population, still do not have access to broadband service, according to the report. Roughly one-third of the residents of tribal areas lack broadband service.
Over the last few years, the FCC has undertaken a variety of initiatives to drive the expansion of high-speed Internet service, dating back to the congressionally-mandated national broadband plan the agency released in early 2010.
Genachowski touted the FCC's work to overhaul its universal service programs to support broadband, and pointed to other efforts, such as the new Connect America Fund, which is projected to deliver access to some 400,000 Americans in 37 states over the next three years.
He also had praise for the work and investment of industry members. In the cable sector, for instance, providers claim to have achieved the technical capacity to deliver broadband service with speeds of 100 megabits per second to more than 80 percent of Americans, though in practice that level of service is only commercially available to 27 percent of consumers, according to the FCC.
The agency also noted the success of mobile operators in building out 4G LTE networks to deliver faster speeds and support the soaring use of Internet-enabled mobile devices.
But the digital divide will persist without further FCC action to spur broadband deployment and adoption, Genachowski warned.
"Some look at the progress that's being made and say, 'mission accomplished.' I disagree," he said. "We need to see ongoing increases in broadband speed and capacity, so that we're routinely talking about gigabits, not megabits."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.