The FCC released its annual report on U.S. broadband availability and adoption on Tuesday, Aug. 21. The headlining statistic is that 19 million people in the U.S. don’t have access to broadband — even if they wanted to subscribe to service.

But that number, without context, doesn’t paint a complete picture. To the surprise of nobody, 14.5 million of those19 million unserved live in rural areas — underscoring the continuing difficulty of bringing “fixed terrestrial” broadband to the loneliest stretches of the U.S.

Nearly one in four Americans living in rural areas lack broadband access, and they are 13 times more likely than everyone else to not have access, according to the FCC’s analysis.

For the purpose of the study, “fixed terrestrial” broadband technologies is defined by the FCC as fiber to the home, DSL, cable modem and fixed wireless. The FCC didn’t count wireless mobile broadband accessible through smartphones, nor did the data include satellite broadband. It’s unclear, for example, how many rural residents are accessing broadband through wireless data plans.

Furthermore, the FCC defines broadband as 4 Mbps download speeds and 1 Mbps upload — sufficient, in the FCC’s words, for “users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics and video telecommunications using any technology.” One could argue that speed benchmark is a fairly generous description of what constitutes broadband, especially in an age where gigabit connections are the future.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski seemed to concede that point, invoking a football analogy via a prepared statement: The “goalposts are moving.” The chairman acknowledged that businesses and consumers are demanding faster speeds and more connectivity. Genachowski mentioned that by 2016 the average Internet household is projected to generate more than 130 gigabytes of traffic per month.

The capacity to meet some of that additional demand seems to be in place. “Industry reports that the upgrade of cable infrastructure to DOCSIS 3.0 technology means that more than 80 percent of Americans have access to networks technically capable of 100 Mbps or more. But our data show that just 27 percent of Americans are being offered broadband services at those speeds today,” Genachowski commented.

Still, there does appear to be at least some progress on the basic availability of broadband. Last year’s report based on mid-2010 data found that 26 million Americans were unserved. The FCC attributed the decrease to more accurate data submitted and expanded broadband deployment by Internet service providers.

Browse the full report below.

FCC 2012 Broadband

Matt Williams Matt Williams  |  Contributing Writer

Matt Williams was previously the news editor of Govtech.com, and is now a contributor to Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.