The FCC periodically puts out some very high-level statistics that talk about the state of broadband in the US. They issued their annual broadband report in January and made the following high-level announcements:
- 39% of rural households don’t have access to broadband that meets the FCC definition of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
- 4% of urban households don’t have access to those speeds.
- 41% of schools still do not have 100 Mbps download speeds.
- Only 9% of schools have 1 Gbps broadband.
I looked deeper into how the FCC counts these various numbers to try to make some sense of them, and the following is what I discovered.
First, they followed the Census definition of urban and rural areas. The Census defines urban areas in one of two ways. One definition of an urban area is a defined geography with more than 50,000 people. It can also be a cluster of smaller towns in a fairly adjacent geographical area that has more than 2,500 people but less than 50,000. In the Census estimate for 2015 the urban areas include about 260 million people. Anything that is not urban is rural, which in 2015 is about 61.5 million people.
If a rural county has a county seat with more than 50,000 people, the county seat would counted as urban and the rest of the county would be rural. Otherwise the whole county is normally counted as rural. But in big urban areas, like the northeast corridor, many areas that you would consider as rural are included in the urban areas. So there is a significant amount of crossover at the edges of these two types of areas. For instance, for broadband purposes we know that somebody that lives 50 feet past where the cable company stops at a county seat might not be able to get broadband, but they might often still be counted as urban.
The raw data that backs up these statistics is still self-reported to the FCC by the ISPs annually on Form 477. On this form telcos and cable companies must report the speeds that they deliver to census blocks, which are census-defined areas of 500 to 900 homes. I looked through this mass of data and there are a huge number of census blocks that are reported at broadband speeds like 3 Mbps or 6 Mbps download. In most cases this is DSL, and our experience is that a whole lot of people in rural DSL areas can’t really get those speeds. That is the ‘advertised’ speed or the theoretical speed. This has always been an issue and I’ve always contended that there are far more homes that can’t get broadband than are reported by Form 477.
Using these FCC numbers means that there are about 24 million people (or 10 million homes) in the rural areas that can’t get the FCC’s defined broadband speeds. While the 4% of urban areas that can’t get fast broadband sounds small, it still equates to 10.4 million people or 4.3 million homes. So what the FCC numbers are really saying is that there are 34 million people and 14.7 million homes in the country that can’t get an FCC-define broadband connection.
I am positive that this number is conservatively low. Census blocks are not assigned by nice political boundaries and there are huge numbers of census blocks that cover both towns and country areas. There has to be many homes that are in census blocks where some of the people can get the speeds shown on Form 477 while others can’t. My guess is that there must be additional millions of people that supposedly can get broadband but that really can’t. Even in towns anybody that lives right past where the cable TV network stops is not going to get much broadband.
The FCC says that they are solving part of the rural broadband problem with CAF II funding which is supposed to bring faster connections to 3.6 million of these homes. But those funds only require upgrades to technology that will achieve 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. That program is not going to remove any homes from the list of those that can’t get broadband.
I really hate to see public announcements that talk in nationwide percentages instead of numbers. This always makes it feel like they are trying to pull something over on us. I had to dig really hard to go one level behind the one-page press release – and that doesn’t really help the public to understand the situation. Much more useful would have been detailed tables by geographic areas that let people see the state of broadband in their area. I suspect they don’t do that because then many of the problems with carrier self-reporting would be more obvious.