The FCC’s Blurry Vision of Satellite Broadband

The availability of broadband soared from 2015 to 2016. Or did it? The claimed increase in broadband availability may have more to do with a bureaucratic change in the reporting system than in technology.

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In February 2018, the Federal Communications Commission released its most recent Broadband Deployment Report, which bases its analysis on 2016 data delivered by all Internet providers. At first glance, improvements in broadband coverage are noticeable; a national summary of the accompanying map indicates that over 95 percent of all Americans now have access to the official broadband threshold (25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream).

This is a significant increase from the 89.4 percent reported to have broadband availability in 2014 and the 81.2 percent reported in 2012. However, digging a bit deeper into this increase demonstrates a little-known fact about how the FCC defines “fixed” broadband and how the implications associated with that definition have changed. 

To the layman, the idea of a “fixed” broadband connection would likely be a traditional, wired line run directly to a business or residence. However, the FCC has historically defined some technologies as “fixed” that might surprise some people. These include fixed wireless connections, or wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), that are basically individual towers that provide line-of-sight service to customers. Additionally, the FCC includes satellite connections as “fixed” broadband. Each of these technologies (WISPssatellite) has been pushed as important for rural broadband. (The rationale behind this definition is that the consumer receives these technologies from a fixed point, as opposed to mobile technologies where the consumer may be in motion).    

In the past, these technologies have not figured into the overall broadband picture very heavily, because they could not offer the 25/3 speeds required by the official definition. This all changed with the 2016 data that is the basis for the current FCC report. A footnote in the official report reads, “2016 marked the first instance where 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps satellite service was reported in the Form 477 data.” The table below demonstrates all reported records for Iowa between 2014 and 2016. As the table suggests, satellite and fixed wireless went from combining for 4% of all 25/3 offerings reported in 2015 to 70% of all offerings reported in 2016!      


The intuitive “fixed” technologies (DSL, Cable, Fiber) made up over 95% of all 25/3 entries in the 2014 and 2015 records. In 2016, however, both fixed wireless and satellite entries skyrocket.

One of the implications of this is that some areas of the country are now shown as having access to broadband, but ONLY because a satellite provider is claiming 25/3 speeds in their area.  The map above depicts these areas.   

 Notice, for example, how the many areas of Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Maine show 25/3 coverage due only to satellite. Iowa is particularly interesting since the expansion in coverage is mostly in rural areas.  

When all is said and done, we estimate that about 10.5 million were covered by 25/3 speeds thanks to satellite as of 2016. In other words, the number of Americans WITHOUT access to 25/3 speeds would nearly double if satellite technology was removed (from the 14 million claimed in the FCC’s report, to over 25 million). 75% of this population is classified as rural by the FCC.   

While any technology with potential to deliver broadband is welcome, there are numerous concerns about classifying satellite as broadband. Satellite technology is highly susceptible to weather disruption; data latency is an issue; and data caps / cost are also concerning. In fact, one of the minimum requirements for providers seeking Connect America Funding (an FCC program to expand broadband services in unavailable areas) is that their latency cannot be higher than 100 millisecond per round trip – a threshold that excludes satellite providers.  Some individual states, however, are embracing satellite providers with their own broadband funding.    

The little known fact that the FCC includes satellite as part of its “fixed” broadband analysis raises questions about the adequacy of the FCC’s definitions and standards. Accurate data of existing broadband infrastructure is essential to local, state and national planning and public policy decisions. Issues of latency, pricing, data caps, and even length of contract are important elements of broadband that should be identified and defined in any publicly available broadband datasets.  

 

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