The 2021 FCC Broadband Deployment Report was released yesterday, just nine months after the 2020 report came out and just one day before today’s change in administration. The report found that “significant progress has been made to bridge the digital divide.”

The report, released annually, has long been a controversial one. The FCC is required to make a determination, based on the data gathered for each year’s report, about whether broadband is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion. Republican administrations, such as the outgoing one, generally find in favor of timely progress, while Democratic administrations generally find that progress isn’t fast enough.

In a press release about this year’s findings, outgoing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai cited various broadband gains, noting for example that in the last three years, the number of Americans in areas without access to fixed broadband at speeds of 25/3 Mbps has been nearly cut in half. Pai attributed such gains to “forward-thinking policies that removed barriers to infrastructure investment and promoted competition and innovation.”

Democratic FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks had a different take. In a statement, he called report findings such as the one this year “unwarranted victory laps.”

As “tens of millions of Americans find themselves unable to access online school, work and healthcare during the pandemic, patting ourselves on the back is particularly unseemly,” he added.

Starks also argued that the report should not have been released so close to the administration change, noting that after the November election, congressional leaders wrote to Pai to urge the commission to stop work on all partisan and controversial items during the presidential transition.

“This item is both,” he said.

FCC Broadband Deployment Report

A hint that the Pai administration had prioritized the release of the 2021 FCC Broadband Deployment Report came in November when the commission released some key points from the data, which was reported by service providers as of year-end 2019.

Yesterday’s press release about the report included several other key findings:

  • The gap between urban and rural Americans with access to 25/3 Mbps fixed broadband dropped 30 percentage points from the end of 2016 to 16 points at the end of 2019.
  • 83% of Americans live in areas served by at least 25/3 Mbps broadband, up 15 points since 2016.
  • The number of Americans without access to 25/3 Mbps broadband dropped from more than 18.1 million at the end of 2018 to less than 14.5 million at the end of 2019.
  • Over the last two years, the percentage of Americans without access to mobile broadband with a median speed of 10/3 Mbps has been slashed from over 35% to under 10%.
  • At the end of 2019, mobile providers offered 5G to approximately 60% of Americans.

It’s worth noting that the data on which report findings were based likely overstates broadband availability, as it is based on Form 477 data collected from carriers. According to numerous critics and the FCC itself, that data overstates broadband availability.

The same day that the FCC released the 2021 Broadband Deployment Report, the commission also issued an order detailing how the broadband data collection process would be revised to more accurately reflect broadband availability.

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