Commission says 24 million U.S. citizens lack broadband access

An estimated 14 million to 24 million American citizens — mostly living in poor or rural areas — still lack access to broadband services, and the prospects for deployment remains “bleak,” the FCC said last week.

The report, in response to a congressional inquiry, said the lack of broadband availability will continue without reform of the universal service program and changes to U.S. broadband policy that lower the cost of deployment. Such changes, the FCC said, would prod more broadband providers to deploy service in rural, poor and other underserved areas.

This is the first time since the FCC began issuing such reports in 1999 that the commission has concluded that broadband isn’t being deployed fast enough. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski called it an “honest look” at the state of broadband access in the United States.

“The report points out the great broadband successes in the United States, including as many as 290 million Americans who have gained access to broadband over the past decade,” Genachowski said. “But the statute requires more. It requires the agency to reach a conclusion about whether all — not some, not most — Americans are being served in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

That’s not happening, he added. However, the FCC’s national broadband plan, released in March, proposes a plan for achieving universal deployment. The report focuses on ways to speed broadband deployment, including revamping the FCC’s Universal Service Fund to support broadband, increasing the amount of wireless spectrum available for commercial and unlicensed uses, and collecting better broadband data to assist policymakers and consumers.

The report also redefines the speed necessary to constitute broadband service. The FCC has updated the decade-old definition of 200kb/s downstream to 4Mb/s.

Robert McDowell, a Republican member of the FCC, said he disagreed with the report’s conclusions. It is a “180-degree reversal” from earlier reports, he said.

“Instead of focusing on the great strides that America has made in broadband deployment … this report emphasizes subscribership,” he said in a statement. “Collecting granular data, including subscribership numbers, is important. But, subscribership data does not equate to the ‘availability’ of broadband. In many instances the report confuses the facts by substituting the terms ‘deployment’ and ‘subscribership’ as if they were synonymous and interchangeable.”

Broadband providers have invested an average of $27 billion in their networks between 2003 and 2009, added Meredith Baker, another Republican member of the FCC. The congressional mandate for the FCC to examine broadband deployment doesn’t require universal access by 2010, she said.

“The question is whether network providers continue to make demonstrable progress toward that goal,” she said in a statement. “All evidence suggests that answer be made in the affirmative.”

Broadband providers AT&T and Verizon Communications didn’t immediately respond to the report. Comcast had no comment.