There are two different ways–plus another big one that is more philosophical in nature–to look at the announcement late Tuesday from the Federal Communications Commission that the agency’s chairman, Ajit Pai, is circulating to his fellow commissioners a draft report finding that the digital divide in America narrowed “substantially” during 2017, and that rollout of broadband service in the U.S. is happening in a “reasonable and timely” way.

The first two ways are reflected in the raw numbers.

On the success front: FCC stats–admittedly not very current ones–show that the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection fell by 25% in 2017, to 19.4 million people. The draft report defines broadband service as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download/3 Mbps upload speed – which in practice may not provide super-speedy service depending on the type of content accessed and how many devices rely upon the connection. And the report points out that most of the people gaining access to broadband service live in rural parts of the country, where deployment of broadband service has traditionally lagged.

“This report shows that our approach is working,” said Chairman Pai, a Republican, who said that narrowing the digital divide during his tenure as head of the agency has been the FCC’s “top priority.” He continued, “We’ve been tackling this problem by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and providing efficient, effective support for rural broadband expansion through our Connect America Fund.”

On the other-hand front: The FCC’s report shows that as of January 2018, 19.1 million did not have access to broadband service. That’s still a pretty big number – and incidentally, does not reflect how many Americans actually purchase broadband service; rather it only counts households that have access to such service.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, one of two Democratic commissioners on the five-member FCC, said as much in a response to Chairman Pai’s announcement.

“Millions of households–in rural and urban communities–have no access to high-speed service. That’s a fact,” she said.

She pointed to the key political and regulatory issue underlying why the FCC counts things like how many people have access to broadband service – because Congress wants it to do so, and also wants it to take further action to spur broadband deployment if it finds providers are not rolling out service in a reasonable and timely way.

Tucked in at the bottom of the FCC’s announcement is the declaration, “Based on these and other data, the report concludes that advanced telecommunications services–broadband–is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis.”

“I beg to differ,” Rosenworcel responded, pointing to the 19.1 million without-broadband-access figure.

Why the FCC’s conclusion on “reasonable and timely” is important has everything to do with the agency’s statutory obligations.

The agency’s annual report to Congress on broadband availability is known in telecom circles as the Section 706 report, referring to the section of the Communications Act that first required it.

Section 706 directs the FCC to “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market” if the FCC does not find that advanced telecommunications capability–ie, broadband–is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.

As recently as 2016, when the FCC was controlled by Democrats, the agency reported to Congress that broadband service was not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion – thus opening the door for the commission to consider further regulatory actions to accomplish that purpose.

The then-minority Republican commissioners at the FCC–including Pai–loudly objected on a variety of grounds reflecting their generally less regulatory mindset.

The five current FCC commissioners–now three Republicans and two Democrats–will vote in the next several weeks on whether to approve the latest broadband report and send it to Congress. While nothing in life is ever guaranteed, a positive endorsement of the current report is close to a sure thing.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.