Every six months, the Federal Communications Commission releases updated data on the respective coverage of every internet provider in the US. That includes coverage maps as well as metrics on the types of technologies being used, the number of customers that fall into each provider's footprint, and the specific upload and download speeds available to those customers, should they choose to sign up. The latest update went live just last week, and brings the database up to date as of June 2020.
In spite of some notorious shortcomings, that FCC data is of particular interest to us on the CNET Home team as we continue evaluating and reviewing every major internet provider in the US. That's because those FCC disclosures force each provider to show their cards and offer us a glimpse at how the scope of their coverage is changing -- or not. As many of us continue to push our networks to the max working from home amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the surging delta variant, tracking the progress of the tech titans providing our internet connections feels more relevant than ever.
To that end, here's a quick rundown of the major takeaways from the FCC's latest update, and what they tell us about the current state of broadband in America.
More of the same from the usual suspects
The list of the largest internet providers in the US hasn't changed much over the past few years. As of June of last year, satellite providers Hughesnet and Viasat were the only ISPs that can claim to offer service to 100% of the country. Meanwhile, AT&T, Comcast Xfinity and Charter Spectrum were the only other providers that offered service to more than 30% of the US; Verizon, CenturyLink and Frontier were the only others with footprints covering more than 10% of the US. All of that was true five years ago, too.
Still, all of the aforementioned providers saw the percentage of US customers within their coverage maps tick up by at least 1% during that span. Other providers, including Cox Communications, Windstream, WideOpenWest (aka WOW) and Mediacom have all seen incremental gains since 2016, as well. Among smaller providers, Sparklight (formerly Cable One) saw its pool of potential customers increase by about 50%, from 1.01% of the country to 1.51%.
By percentage, the largest gain among the providers we're tracking actually goes to Google Fiber. Though it's never been available to more than 1% of the US, Alphabet's internet service saw its customer base grow by more than 100% between 2016 and 2020, from 0.46% to 0.98%.
"We're building on our mission to connect more people to fast, reliable internet in Google Fiber cities across the country," a spokesperson for Google Fiber said earlier this year. "Google Fiber construction teams are actively working to build out our networks in each one of our existing Fiber cities, and we're expanding to new neighboring communities in some of those cities."
No sign of Starlink -- yet
The FCC's database doesn't include any data from SpaceX or from Starlink, the company's bid at building out a network of orbital satellites capable of providing an internet connection just about anywhere on Earth. That's because the FCC releases its data on a one-year delay, so the latest figures are only up to date as of June of last year. Starlink didn't start offering service through its beta launch until the end of 2020.
Still, SpaceX has had a busy year. In February, the still-in-beta internet service hit 10,000 users, and after a series of successful launches, the number of satellites in Starlink's constellation is nearing 2,000. During a talk at Mobile World Congress in June, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that Starlink would be available worldwide except at the North and South Poles starting in August. That echoed SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell who, weeks earlier, told an audience at the Macquarie Technology Summit that Starlink would reach global serviceability sometime this fall.
"We've successfully deployed 1,800 or so satellites, and once all those satellites reach their operational orbit we will have continuous global coverage so that should be like [the] September time frame," Shotwell said.
All of that means that we should expect to see Starlink in that FCC database within another update or two. Those disclosures about Starlink's speeds and the true scope of its coverage should be interesting, so we'll certainly keep an eye out for them. In the meantime, you can read more about our early, hands-on impressions of Starlink's satellite internet service here.
Fiber is on the rise...
With gigabit speeds that far surpass most other internet technologies, as well as upload speeds that are just as fast as they are for downloads, fiber-optic internet (fiber, for short) is widely considered to be the ideal mode of connecting to the web. The problem is that it isn't available everywhere -- for the most part, providers have focused on building out fiber networks in population-dense regions around America's major cities, leaving rural internet customers out of the mix.
That said, the category has seen some definite growth in recent years, particularly in 2020. At the start of the year, only four major providers -- Google Fiber, Verizon Fios, WOW and Frontier -- offered fiber service to at least 30% of serviceable addresses within their respective coverage maps. By June, the number had jumped to seven, with CenturyLink, AT&T and newcomer Ziply Fiber joining the mix. Elsewhere, Windstream went from offering fiber to a scant 1.7% of customers in 2016 to offering it to 26.26% of them in 2020. Some even smaller providers, including Metronet, Sonic and Consolidated Communications, boast sizable fiber shares, as well.