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3 things we still don't know about U.S. broadband

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The FCC reports that 19 million Americans lack access to broadband. But even with that data, there's still a lot we don't know.

The Federal Communications Commission issued a new report yesterday detailing broadband availability in the United States. According to the FCC's data, 19 million Americans still don't have access to terrestrial-fixed broadband. That number is significantly lower than the 26 million cited as not having access a year ago, but it still means that six percent of the U.S. population can't get Internet speeds at a minimum rate of four megabits per second downstream, and one megabit per second upstream.

While the FCC provides a substantial amount of data in the latest Broadband Progress Report, it also acknowledges what it doesn't know. Even as the Commission works to accelerate U.S. broadband deployment through a number of new initiatives, here is some of the information we still don't have.

Comprehensive data on broadband access in elementary and secondary schools

The FCC notes that "as many as 80 percent of the E-rate funded schools and libraries say their broadband connections do not fully meet their needs." These are the institutions that should be guaranteeing Americans access even when there is no broadband at home, but to date we don't have reliable or detailed information on whether they are able to. [Note: The E-rate program provides Internet access discounts to a number of U.S. schools and libraries, but not all.]

Well-documented information on mobile broadband access

The Commission wants to ensure access to both fixed and mobile broadband to all Americans, but it also says it has specifically identified "hundreds of thousands of unserved road miles in census blocks lacking 3G or better wireless services." While the FCC would like to offer a more detailed accounting, it does not believe it has the right data sources today to be able to analyze fully what mobile access looks like across the country. Right now, the FCC believes available data would likely overstate mobile broadband availability.

A complete understanding of how broadband requirements will change

In 2010 the FCC upgraded its definition of broadband to 4 Mbps/1 Mbps. The Commission plans to "review and reset" this threshold every four years, but from the vantage point of 2012, it's hard to tell how quickly or significantly those performance requirements should change. It may be that the current broadband definition will remain appropriate through 2014. However, it's also possible that we'll see major application breakthroughs in the near future thanks to new high-speed networks that push the needle forward faster than we expect. If that happens, it will require a shift in analysis that we simply can't predict today.

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Image credit: Federal Communications Commission

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Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure