High-speed broadband has become essential to boost today’s economies, education, healthcare, entertainment and other facets of our lives. Making sure all Americans have access to a robust internet connection is a top priority for cable companies, including Texas Cable Association (TCA) members Altice USA (that provides Suddenlink services), Charter Spectrum, Comcast and Sparklight. But determining who has or doesn’t have that access – and how to deliver it – has for years been a debate between providers, policymakers and others.
Recent policy developments on both the state and national levels could hasten the efficient and swift deployment of broadband to those who are unserved.
The cable industry has been an active participant in these discussions and developments. Cable has long been the leading broadband provider in Texas and the nation, with about two-thirds of all high-speed internet subscribers. We’re continuing to roll out new, ever-better technology that improves our internet for existing customers and allows us to reach those who are unserved.
In 2019, 80% of U.S. households were able to receive gigabit service through cable, thanks to $1.5 trillion invested by internet service providers in the last 20 years to deploy 400,000 miles of fiber optics into communities big and small across the country.
As a result, 92.7% of Texans have access to service at the FCC benchmark for high-speed internet of at least 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.
Still, an estimated 1.8 million Texans lack access to high-speed internet. Nationally, an estimated 6% of all Americans and 26% of those living in rural America are not connected to high-speed internet. This interactive map shows the access and subscription rates for each of the 511 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) in the United States, including 30 MSAs across Texas.
But exactly how many Americans remain unserved – and where they are – have been topics of debate, centered on the methodologies used for calculations.
Why does it matter? More accurate data leads to more accurate broadband maps, allowing broadband deployment resources and funding (including taxpayer money) to be more efficiently and effectively targeted for maximum impact. Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have large pockets of money for rural broadband expansion.
Mapping the unserved
Recent developments to ensure more accurate maps are wins for consumers, policymakers and private internet providers.
Traditionally, data to build the maps relied on providers to self-report census block-level data to the FCC. The result has been overly broad and inaccurate coverage maps because an entire census block is considered “served” if a provider has a single customer in the block.
Instead, the cable industry has advocated for the FCC to focus on mapping unserved areas instead of identifying where internet service providers’ costumers are located. To do this, providers would submit detailed information showing their existing service coverage. This would more accurately show which areas, down to a granular level, are served and allow funding to be directed to areas that need it most.
The FCC voted in August to develop a more granular broadband data collection, as urged by the cable industry and others.
“Today’s FCC action to improve its broadband data collection practices is a significant victory for consumers that will meaningfully improve the accuracy of broadband maps and enable the Commission to more efficiently target resources to areas that lack broadband access,” NCTA-The Internet & Television Association said at the time. “Our industry is committed to quickly moving forward with providing the Commission the more granular data and will continue to work with policymakers on solutions that will connect all Americans to the internet.”
In December, Congress passed legislation to improve the FCC’s broadband mapping efforts. The Mapping Accuracy Promotes Services (MAPS) would make it illegal to “willfully, knowingly, or recklessly submit inaccurate broadband service data.” The Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (Broadband DATA) Act “requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to issue new rules to require the collection and dissemination of granular broadband availability data and to establish a process to verify the accuracy of such data, and more.” Both bills are now on the president’s desk.
Broadband and the Texas Legislature
On the state level, the Texas Legislature in 2019 passed HB 1960 to create the 17-member Governor’s Broadband Council. Among those appointed to the Council by Gov. Greg Abbott is Juli Blanda, chair of the TCA Board of Directors and general manager for Sparklight, based in Aransas Pass.
The Council is to research the progress of broadband deployment in Texas and identify barriers to deployment in unserved areas – that is, without access to high-speed internet at the FCC’s benchmark speed. While Council appointments haven’t been finalized, its first report is due by Nov. 20, 2020, and the Council will expire in 2029.
Also signed into law was SB 14, intended to expand broadband access in rural areas by allowing an electric cooperative, or an electric cooperative affiliate to construct, operate, and maintain cables and other facilities for providing broadband service through existing easements owned, held or used by the cooperative.
As TCA participates in broadband policy discussions, its advocacy follows a set of principles for responsible broadband deployment to those who are truly unserved.
For example, the Texas cable industry believes that deployment should focus on the areas of greatest need. Texas cable operators believe that a properly structured state-funded broadband deployment program must ensure that limited government resources are allocated to unserved areas only, and not to overbuild areas where residents already have access to broadband service.
TCA also monitors how policy proposals issues related to that expansion, such as:
- Funding – How will expansion be financed? There should be a dedicated state fund created through general revenue or by bonds. If access to broadband is important for all Texans, then the costs should be shared by all.
- Focus on areas of greatest need – Efforts should be directed to areas of the state that have no access to wireline or fixed wireless broadband. Overbuilding in areas where residents already have service runs counter to the goal of broadband expansion.
- Mapping and speed – The FCC is the best resource. TCA joins the cable industry in believing unserved areas should be determined by census blocks, and the standard should be the FCC benchmark, as previously discussed.
- Project approval – Competition for these projects and funding should be conducted through an annual, open and transparent competitive bid process. TCA believes taxpayer money should be spent on sustainable, technology-neutral projects built in certified unserved areas by an entity with broadband deployment experience. Government-owned networks should not be eligible.
Cable closing the digital divide
While the cable industry works with legislators and regulators on both state and federal levels to ensure more accurate broadband mapping and deployment, they continue to take other initiatives to close the digital divide.
Across the United States, cable operators are using innovative technologies to connect areas where it would otherwise be too cost prohibitive to lay fiber. For example, in some parts of the country providers are using fixed wireless technology to extend broadband service up to 40 miles from the last wired point. And Charter has been testing its 3.5GHz fixed wireless solution for rural broadband in several markets across the nation that were chosen for their terrain, inclement weather and other potential obstacles.
In addition, the cable industry is committed to closing the digital divide through its education initiatives.
Cable companies make low-cost internet available to low-income families with children who qualify for the National School Lunch program. Through this initiative, cable companies provide discounted internet services, hardware, digital literacy training, and technology centers across the country to increase accessibility and help close the digital divide.
The cable industry has invested more than $300 million nationally in broadband adoption programs, which has connected more than 2 million families across the country. The largest such program, Comcast’s Internet Essentials, has connected more than 8 million low-income people to low-cost, high-speed Internet at home since 2011.
Government and private initiatives to close the broadband access gap are working.
The FCC’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report found that the number of Americans lacking a connection at the FCC benchmark speed dropped 18%, or almost 5 million people, between 2016 and 2017. And more than a fourth of those individuals live in rural America, the report found.
During 2018, broadband providers deployed fiber networks to 5.9 million new homes, the largest number ever recorded, according to the FCC.
Cable providers are committed to support and implement innovative solutions to reach those who still lack high-speed broadband. Refining public policy, in addition to cable’s ongoing commitment to roll out innovative technology and to reach the unserved, will keep our country and industry moving toward its shared goal to spread the benefits of broadband to everyone