It looks like things might be improving—at least a little—when it comes to closing the digital divide in America. The latest quarterly report from BroadbandNow highlights several small achievements that have closed the internet gap a little bit more, but also reveals the massive amount of work still ahead.
As of December, 70% of Americans had access to a low-priced broadband plan, defined as $60 a month or less, compared to 52% at the end of 2019—meaning around 59 million Americans received access to cheap internet for the first time in 2020.
Rhode Island, the smallest U.S. state, surprisingly has the most residents with access to a low-priced broadband plan with at least 100 Mbps download and 25 Mbps upload. According to the report, 98.4% of Rhode Island citizens have access to coverage, while 84.2% have access to affordable plans.
By contrast, 81% of California residents had access to the same speeds, but only 18.6% of those same residents could afford the same coverage—79.1% could afford the FCC-defined minimum speeds of 25Mbps/3Mbps. Just 30% of Americans have access to low-priced plans that deliver 100Mbps.
Broadband’s report also notes that for the first time Alaskan residents have access to low-priced broadband plans. That current number is less than 1% of the entire population of Alaska, so there’s still a lot of deployment work to be done. But now that some access is available in Alaska, that also means all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, have access to low-priced plans for the first time as well.
But as noted above with the California example, affordable internet access is still one of several major barriers to creating equitable broadband coverage, and one of the many things needed to close the digital divide. While a good number of states provide affordable broadband access defines by the FCC minimum to 50% or more of their residents, only six states, and the District of Columbia, provide affordable access to 100 Mbps internet speeds: Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.
The state of broadband in America is a far cry from the rosy picture the FCC’s latest annual broadband report paints. The agency’s report, released Jan. 19, claims to show the “digital divide is rapidly closing.” If you’re looking at 25 Mbps numbers as noted above, sure. But that download speed has been the FCC minimum since 2015. Before that, it was 4 Mbps/1 Mbps in 2010. It took five years for the FCC to redefine broadband speeds the last time, so technically we are overdue at this point—and the next minimum should be 100Mbps.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who was designated Acting Chairwoman of the FCC by President Biden today, dissented to the FCC broadband report.
“It confounds logic that today the FCC decides to release a report that says that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion,” Rosenworcel said. “Across the country there are state authorities developing new plans, maps, and initiatives at the behest of their residents…What I take from all of this activity is that the job is not done.”
Naming Rosenworcel—a staunch critic of the FCC’s policies and actions under the leadership of former Chairman Ajit Pai—as acting FCC chairwoman seems to signal the Biden administration is dead serious about closing the digital divide, and closing it fast. And that seriousness seems to extend beyond the FCC, too.
In a committee hearing today for Secretary of Transportation nominee Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar briefly brought up the possibility of laying new fiber broadband lines at more infrastructure construction sites. (This is a method called “dig-once.”)
“Parts of South Bend [Indiana] have phenomenal broadband fiber connectivity for the simple reason that somebody remembered to lay conduit alongside some of the railways and highways,” Buttigieg said. “I would welcome the opportunity to make sure the DOT side of the equation is open to supporting that broadband deployment.”