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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The federal government's efforts to provide ubiquitous internet access have had varying levels of success.

Why it matters: Congress mandates that the FCC take "immediate action" if advanced telecom capability is not being deployed to "all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion." Chairman Ajit Pai says closing the digital divide is his top priority, but the FCC can't compel ISPs to expand networks; it can only offer incentives to do so.

The market problem:

  • The target customers of the biggest internet service providers — like AT&T and Verizon — are in urban and suburban areas.
  • Some ISPs do offer discounted internet service plans for low-income consumers.
  • But expanding to rural areas doesn't yield enough return on the billions of dollars they'd have to invest. And when ISPs roll out 5G technologies, they’ll offer those products in the same high-profit locations.

Mixed signals from the FCC: The agency said this year that more than 24 million Americans still lack fixed service that meets the FCC's broadband speed benchmark (25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload). About 14 million rural Americans lack mobile LTE broadband.

  • Despite this, the FCC concluded that "broadband services are now being deployed to all Americans on a reasonable and timely basis."

Be smart:

  • That's a 180-degree shift from the approach of the previous administration, which concluded broadband services were not being deployed fast enough, and used that determination to push policies like expanding subsidies to schools and libraries.
  • Pai abolished net neutrality rules, arguing the strict regulations slashed network investment by the major ISPs. Critics disagree.

Pai has made some big strides in securing commitments (in exchange for subsidies) from ISPs to extend networks into hard-to-reach areas. But critics say he hasn't done enough to help low-income, urban consumers.

  • In rural areas: He held an auction to allocate subsidies ($2 billion over 10 years) to a wide range of companies who will operate in unserved areas, and is expected to offer small ISPs a second chance to accept subsidies.
  • He streamlined processes for ISPs to install equipment on utility poles. He's increased funding to the agency's rural healthcare program. The FCC has lined up auctions to make airwaves available for mobile broadband, some of which will cover rural areas.
  • In urban areas: Pai limited fees and permitting requirements for ISPs to deploy 5G in cities. Several cities are suing; and consumer advocates say the FCC should have required ISPs to serve low-income residents in return.
  • Separately, he proposed rescinding support for parts of the Lifeline program, which subsidizes phone service for low-income consumers.

What to watch: A wonky fight is brewing at the FCC that could significantly impact new fiber projects. Smaller competitors building new fiber networks often rely on incumbents' infrastructure to fill gaps.

  • But USTelecom, a trade group that represents the incumbent providers (AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink), has asked the FCC to stop requiring them to grant that access to competitors. Competitive ISPs say that would significantly undercut their ability to build.

The bigger (cloudy) picture: One thing almost everyone agrees on is the need for a more accurate national broadband map. It's impossible to fix the connectivity problem if policymakers don't have a reliable view of how big it actually is.

  • Right now, ISPs report to the FCC top advertised speeds across census blocks they serve, but it's not granular enough to show address-by-address coverage.

Go deeper: How 5G may wide the rural-urban digital divide

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

Taiwan leader confirms U.S. troops on island training forces

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei earlier this month. Photo: I-Hwa Cheng/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen told CNN Thursday that a small number of American troops are on the island for training purposes and she has "faith" the U.S. would defend the democracy against a Chinese military attack.

Why it matters: This is the first time a Taiwanese leader has publicly acknowledged the presence of U.S. troops on the self-governing island since the last U.S. garrison left in 1979, when Washington switched formal diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

Updated 4 hours ago - Health

NYC firefighters union urges members to defy mayor's vaccine mandate

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The president of New York City's firefighters union told reporters Wednesday that he's advised unvaccinated members to ignore Mayor Bill de Blasio's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers, per Reuters.

Why it matters: Under de Blasio's order that's due to take effect Friday, unvaccinated city employees would be placed on unpaid leave. But Uniformed Firefighters Association head Andrew Ansbro said he told members that "if they choose to remain unvaccinated, they must still report for duty," according to Reuters.

6 hours ago - Health

Study: Common antidepressant guards against COVID hospitalization

A COVID-19 intensive Care Unit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on May 27, 2021. Photo: Fabio Teixeira/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The readily available antidepressant fluvoxamine significantly reduced COVID-related hospitalizations, according to a large study published Wednesday.

Why it matters: The clinical trial suggests that a cheap, readily available drug could dramatically reduce serious illness and death when prescribed early.