Pai decision raises speeds, but it’ll take a decade to reach all 106K locations.

A US map with lines representing broadband networks.


More than 106,000 rural homes and small businesses in 43 US states will get access to 25Mbps broadband at some point in the next decade thanks to a Federal Communications Commission policy change.

The FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF), which distributes money to ISPs in exchange for new broadband deployments in underserved areas, had been requiring speeds of just 10Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream over the past few years. But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai led a vote in December 2018 to raise the standard for new CAF projects to 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up.

While Pai often claims—with no evidence or with incorrect data—that his net neutrality repeal and other deregulatory policies are increasing broadband access, this decision actually will have a modest impact on broadband speeds in some rural areas.

Yesterday, the FCC announced that its December 2018 vote is leading to tangible results: 186 Internet providers accepted a total of $65.7 million in additional annual funding and “committed to deploying 25/3Mbps service to 106,365 homes and small businesses that would have otherwise only received slower 10/1Mbps service.” Carriers had previously committed to deploy 25Mbps/3Mbps in 334,443 locations, so the additional locations announced yesterday brings the total to 440,808.

It’ll take nearly a full decade for all those homes and businesses to get the service. Under the funding terms, the FCC said ISPs “must deploy 25/3Mbps service to 40 percent of locations by end of the 2022, and increase deployment by 10 percent annually until buildout is complete at the end of 2028.” ISPs receiving the new funding are listed here.

Ten years is a long deployment time even by FCC standards. In August 2015, the FCC decided to distribute $1.5 billion in annual support to serve 3.6 million homes and businesses and required carriers to finish the deployments by the end of 2020.

The new 25Mbps/3Mbps standard doesn’t automatically apply to pre-existing CAF projects, but the FCC gave carriers a chance to get more funding in exchange for meeting the new standard on previously funded projects. About 92 percent of the new funding offers were accepted, the FCC said.

25Mbps not so fast by modern standards

25Mbps/3Mbps isn’t all that fast by today’s standards—Netflix recommends 25Mbps to stream in 4K and have some bandwidth left over. The FCC in January 2015 decided that nationwide broadband progress should be judged based on whether Americans have access to at least 25Mbps/3Mbps speeds but kept using the older 10Mbps/1Mbps standard for the CAF program until the December 2018 vote.

Gigabit home Internet services are now common offerings from cable and fiber companies. While rural areas tend to lag behind, some rural areas have gigabit service thanks to municipal broadband.

The new FCC-funded deployments won’t make a huge dent in the nation’s broadband gap: a recent analysis of FCC data found that 21.3 million Americans still lack access to a fixed broadband connection of at least 25Mbps/3Mbps. Still, 25Mbps/3Mbps is an improvement over what many rural areas can access today, and it is faster than what otherwise would have been required under the FCC’s old rules.

“Today’s announcement means that many more rural Americans will have access to high-speed broadband service that will enable them to fully participate in the digital economy—entrepreneurship, telemedicine, precision agriculture, online education, and more,” Pai said yesterday after announcing the new funding. “This is yet another example of how the FCC is working hard to close the digital divide.”

FCC-funded programs may get to a gigabit eventually. With the FCC’s 2015 Connect America Fund disbursement slated to end by 2020, Pai has proposed a replacement fund of $20.4 billion that could connect up to four million homes and small businesses over the next 10 years with “up to gigabit-speed broadband.” The minimum speed for that new fund could still end up being 25Mbps/3Mbps, though.

The Connect America Fund is one of the FCC’s Universal Service programs, which are paid for by Americans through fees on their phone bills. Pai recently proposed a new budget cap on Universal Service that could limit the number of poor people who can receive voice and broadband subsidies.