Broadband Deployment Is Extensive throughout the United States, but It Is Difficult to Assess the Extent of Deployment Gaps in Rural Areas

GAO-06-426: Published: May 5, 2006. Publicly Released: May 5, 2006.

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Mark L. Goldstein
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Both Congress and the President have indicated that access to broadband for all Americans is critically important. Broadband is seen as a critical economic engine, a vehicle for enhanced learning and medicine, and a central component of 21st century news and entertainment. As part of our response to a mandate included in the Internet Tax Nondiscrimination Act of 2004, this report examines the factors that affect the deployment and the adoption of broadband services. In particular, this report provides information on (1) the current status of broadband deployment and adoption; (2) the factors that influence the deployment of broadband networks; (3) the factors that influence the adoption, or purchase, of broadband service by households; and (4) the options that have been suggested to spur greater broadband deployment and adoption.

About 30 million American households have adopted broadband service, but the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) data indicating the availability of broadband networks has some weaknesses. FCC conducts an extensive data collection effort using its Form 477 to assess the status of advanced telecommunications service in the United States. For its zip-code level data, FCC collects data based on where subscribers are served, not where providers have deployed broadband infrastructure. Although it is clear that the deployment of broadband networks is extensive, the data may not provide a highly accurate depiction of local deployment of broadband infrastructures for residential service, especially in rural areas. A variety of market and technical factors, government efforts, and access to resources at the local level have influenced the deployment of broadband infrastructure. Areas with low population density and rugged terrain, as well as areas removed from cities, are generally more costly to serve than are densely populated areas and areas with flat terrain. As such, deployment tends to be less developed in more rural parts of the country. Technical factors can also affect deployment. GAO also found that a variety of federal and state efforts, and access to resources at the local level, have influenced the deployment of broadband infrastructure. A variety of characteristics related to households and services influence whether consumers adopt broadband service. GAO found that consumers with high incomes and college degrees are significantly more likely to adopt broadband. The price of broadband service remains a barrier to adoption for some consumers, although prices have been declining recently. The availability of applications and services that function much more effectively with broadband, such as computer gaming and file sharing, also influences whether consumers purchase broadband service. Stakeholders identified several options to address the lack of broadband in certain areas. Although the deployment of broadband is widespread, some areas are not served, and it can be costly to serve highly rural areas. Targeted assistance might help facilitate broadband deployment in these areas. GAO found that stakeholders have some concerns about the structure of the Rural Utilities Service's broadband loan program. GAO was also told that modifications to spectrum management might address the lack of broadband infrastructure in rural areas. Also, because the cost of building land-based infrastructure is so high in some rural areas, satellite industry stakeholders noted that satellite broadband technology may be the best for addressing a lack of broadband in those regions. While several options such as these were suggested to GAO, each has some challenges to implementation. Also, a key difficulty for analyzing and targeting federal aid for broadband is a lack of reliable data on the deployment of networks.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On April 16, 2007, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FCC 07-17) wherein FCC sought comment about how it could acquire information it needs to develop and maintain appropriate broadband policies. In the NPRM, FCC noted that broadband data collected pursuant to the Form 477 data collection program have significantly helped FCC and the public understand the extent of broadband deployment nationwide. FCC also said that the proposals discussed in the NPRM would allow FCC to deepen and refine its understanding of broadband availability and deployment. Finally, FCC said that additional data collection could impose an increased burden on reporting entities, and FCC solicited public comment about the balance between the burden of additional data collection and the benefits such information provides. On March 19, 2008, FCC adopted a Report and Order (FCC 08-89) that will increase the precision and quality of its broadband data. In particular, FCC will require broadband providers to report the number of subscribers by Census Tract, broken down by speed tier and technology type. In the Order, FCC noted our findings that assessing broadband deployment is difficult, especially in rural areas. As a result, decision makers should be better able to assess the impact of federal support mechanisms, since as we noted, one of the difficulties of assessing where to target any federal support is that it is hard to know exactly where broadband infrastructure has not been deployed.

    Recommendation: In a draft of this report provided to FCC for review and comment, GAO recommended that FCC identify and evaluate strategies for improving the 477 data such that the data provide a more accurate depiction of residential broadband deployment throughout the country. In oral comments regarding this recommendation, FCC staff acknowledged that the 477 data have some limitations in detailing broadband deployment, but also noted that there had recently been a proceeding examining its broadband data collection efforts and that some changes to the data collection had been implemented. In that proceeding, the commission also determined that it would be costly and could impose large burdens on filers--particularly small entities--to require any more detailed filings on broadband deployment. Although FCC staff told us that analysis of potential costs had been conducted, exact estimates of these costs and burdens have not yet been determined. Moreover, many have expressed concern about ensuring that all Americans--especially those in rural areas--have access to broadband technologies. Policymakers concerned about full deployment of broadband throughout the country will have difficulty targeting any assistance to that end without accurate and reliable data on localized deployment. As such, FCC should develop information regarding the degree of cost and burden that would be associated with various options for improving the information available on broadband deployment and should provide that information to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and the House Energy and Commerce Committee in order to help them determine what actions, if any, are necessary to employ going forward.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission


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