FCC Hopes New Count Adds Up

The agency attempts to deflect criticism of flawed broadband penetration numbers.

Download the authoritative guide:

The Federal Communications Commission has decided to change its method for counting U.S. broadband subscribers. For years, the agency's reports have been widely criticized for overstating U.S. broadband penetration.

Over the last decade, broadband suppliers had to give the FCC the number of subscribers an ISP had in a zip code. If a zip code had at least one subscriber, the FCC counted that zip code as being served by a broadband provider. The methodology has been hit by all sides, including the General Accountability Office, as poorly reflecting the true rate of broadband penetration.

Under an order approved June 13, broadband providers will now be required to report the number of subscribers in a census track in addition to subscribers in a zip code. The providers will also for the first time be required to report on the speeds of the broadband service provided to customers.

In addition, broadband providers will have to separate consumers from business subscribers in their reporting to the FCC. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said the new reporting methods would enable the FCC to better identify and analyze the deployment of U.S. broadband.

"As the importance of broadband continues to increase, it is important that we understand better how and where broadband is being deployed by providers and used by consumers," Martin said in a statement. "[The order] will require detailed subscribership information on a local level and detailed information about the download and upload speeds of broadband services offered to consumers."

Currently, the FCC sets the minimum speed for broadband definition as 200kbps, a speed many other countries do not count as broadband. Under the FCC's new rules, speeds of 200-768k will be counted as "first generation" broadband and speeds from 769k to 1.5 mbps will be considered as basic broadband.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps welcomed the new reporting requirements, but lamented the agency took so long to change its methodology.

"These reports claim progress that simply did not reflect reality," Copps said. "The data lacked a plausible definition of broadband, employed stunningly meaningless zip code measurements concerning its geographic distribution, ignored the prices people paid for broadband completely, and for years failed to look at what other countries were doing to get broadband deployed to their people."

Copps added, "Just consider the fact that our international competitors deploy 25, 50 and 100 mbps broadband speeds at fractions of what it costs here in the United States."