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Exactly 21 years after first Digest story, GAO and FCC still talking about digital divide

July 23, 2020

Exactly 21 years after the SSTI Weekly Digest ran its first story on the digital divide, a recent report by the Government Accountability Office confirms what inestimable studies before it have reported: access to broadband has expanded, but significant shortcomings in broadband still exist. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission has issued new rules to improve collection and mapping of broadband availability. The commission is also seeking comments on proposals to ensure the accuracy of the new broadband coverage maps.

Under the FCC rules, service providers will be required to submit propagation maps reflecting among other things technology-specific user download and upload speeds, and measures for determining the accuracy of broadband availability data.

The GAO report looks at two different measures to assess the current state of broadband investment and deployment: (1) industry and federal investments to deploy broadband in the United States since 2009, and (2) efforts federal agencies are making to address deployment challenges.

The report found that telecommunications industry and federal government investments have expanded access to broadband in the United States, noting that from 2015 to 2017, FCC’s Universal Service Fund expanded service to about 2.3 million residential and small business locations. The report also notes that fixed broadband service with minimum speed of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps was available to 94.4 percent of the U.S. population in 2018, up from 81.2 percent in 2012. Tribal lands also saw growth, as about 72.3 percent of tribal lands had fixed broadband service available in 2018, up from 32.2 percent in 2012. Lastly, while rural areas still lag far behind, service availability increased from 45.7 percent in 2012 to 77.7 percent in 2018.

Despite these findings, there are still shortcomings in broadband access in the U.S. About 1 in 4 people living in rural and tribal areas continue to lack access to fixed broadband, and about 22.3 percent of the rural population and 27.7 percent of tribal population did not have fixed broadband service available with minimum speed of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. In contrast, only about 1.5 percent of the urban population did not have fixed broadband service available at the same speed.

The new FCC rules will focus on identifying such existing coverage gaps by implementing improved mapping guidelines and requiring high standards of accuracy from disclosure, which in turn will help advance ongoing efforts to close the digital divide.