As legislators and policymakers debate the best approach for closing the digital divide, the analysis should be grounded in data to illuminate the scope of the challenge we currently face.
First, we must highlight the critical importance of address-level mapping to target funding as precisely as possible to those housing units currently lacking adequate fixed broadband service. We commend Acting Chair Rosenworcel for swiftly establishing the FCC’s Broadband Data Task Force, which is now hard at work producing such a map. We should all be doing what we can to assist them in that effort. Once completed, the new map should be the definitive resource for distribution of all broadband deployment dollars – whether done by a federal agency or a state or local authority.
As we await the results of the Broadband Data Collection, and as policymakers discuss the appropriate size of a broadband deployment fund as part of an overall infrastructure package, we thought it would be instructive to attempt to look beyond the FCC’s current method of determining whether a particular census block (CB) is served. Under the Commission’s Form 477 data collection “one served all served” rule, a CB is deemed “served” if just one location is capable of receiving fixed service within the CB.
After performing that analysis, we came up with the following estimate of total housing units without fixed broadband service at the FCC’s current 25/3 speed threshold and at a 100/20 speed threshold in both served and unserved census blocks:
For purposes of this analysis, we counted all census blocks (CBs) won in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I auction as 100% served, even though that auction remains in the long form stage and no dollars have yet been authorized. These census blocks contain approximately 4.6 million housing units. Should there be any RDOF defaults, the housing units for defaulted CBs would need to be added to our estimate of housing units without service.
To calculate the total number of housing units without service at a given speed threshold, we first counted the housing units in all census blocks that were neither served by a provider meeting the defined speed, nor won in the RDOF (based on 2019 Form 477 data). To estimate the number of unserved housing units in census blocks reported as served (which currently cannot be counted with precision), we applied a factor derived from the location-based Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative (GBDI), which used a 25/3 service definition. Namely, we calculated that approximately 18% of housing units in rural CBs reported as served do not have service and approximately 1.5% of housing units in served urban CBs are also unserved. Using these factors, we estimate that a total of almost 10 million, or 7%, of all housing units across the country are still without fixed broadband service at the current definition of 25/3.
To estimate the number of housing units without 100/20 service, we identified all CBs reported as served at that speed and applied the same factors we used for 25/3 because we lack more nuanced data on the higher speed thresholds to support a different factor. It’s difficult to know whether these factors are too high or too low for higher speeds, but we think our estimate of about 16 million housing units without 100/20 service is in the ballpark.
These are nationwide estimates without regard to any measure of “high-cost” as is traditional for a Universal Service program. The FCC has always assumed that directing funding to areas that are particularly costly to serve would drive investment deeper into lower cost areas. While that might have occurred in some areas, the fact that there are still many Americans without adequate broadband service suggests that the assumption was incorrect. For that reason, we have estimated nationwide numbers on the grounds that any housing unit without broadband service in 2021 should be included.
I also note that our estimates count housing units only – not small businesses – due to the lack of an equivalent data source. The number of housing units won in RDOF Phase I was 4.6 million, so we assume there must have been about 500,000 small businesses included in the FCC’s location numbers. Any allocation of deployment dollars will likely also want to target unserved small business locations.
As noted above, these numbers are our attempt to use the limited available data to develop reasonable estimates. We offer them in the spirit of informing the debate. Completion of the FCC’s broadband serviceable location “Fabric” and the availability reporting under the new BDC rules are necessary to achieve precision in accurately sizing the current digital divide as well as targeting funding to where it is most needed. In the meantime, these estimates will hopefully help point the debate in the right direction.