A Senator Says U.S. Broadband Maps 'Stink.' Here's Why Nobody Wants To Fix Them.

from the nothing-to-see-here dept

Last week we noted how an FCC “oversight” hearing fell well short of anything actually resembling, well, actual oversight. Three FCC staffers had just been caught making up a DDOS attack and misleading Congress, the press and the FBI about it — yet the subject was was barely even broached by lawmakers on either side of the aisle. It was another embarrassing example of the absence of anything resembling genuine accountability at the agency.

Fortunately one subject that did get a little attention was the FCC’s comically-terrible broadband maps, something we’ve covered at great lengths here at Techdirt. If you want to see our terrible broadband maps at work, you need only go visit the FCC’s $300+ million broadband availability map, which is based on the Form 477 data collected from ISPs. If you plug in your address, you’ll find that not only does the FCC not include prices (at industry behest), the map hallucinates speed and ISP availability at most U.S. addresses.

For example, at my home in Seattle there’s only one real ISP available: Comcast. But according to the FCC’s data, I supposedly have seven broadband providers to choose from:

Three of those options (CenturyLink DSL, CenturyLink fiber, and Startouch Broadband) don’t actually exist at my address, something I’ve confirmed with company engineers. Another three are satellite broadband providers, whose sky-high latency, high prices and daily or monthly usage caps make the services barely qualify as real broadband. That again leaves just Comcast as my only fixed line broadband option (aka a monopoly) in Seattle, supposedly one of the bigger tech-oriented cities in America. If you plug your address into the FCC’s map you’ll likely see similarly-misleading results.

As the FCC eyes where to deploy $4.5 billion in new rural broadband subsidies, more and more lawmakers are growing annoyed at the FCC’s failure on this front. That includes Senator Jon Tester, who at last week’s hearing proclaimed that the FCC’s broadband maps “stink”, and figuratively suggested that somebody (?_(?)_/?) should have their “ass kicked” for the failure:

“We’ve got to kick somebody’s ass,” he told the chairman. Pai joked that the FCC would take that as a figurative, rather than literal, congressional directive. Tester aligned himself with Democrat Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s comment that without good maps, a lot of money would be unnecessarily spent. Tester also said he was pleased Verizon was rolling out 5G in Indianapolis and other big markets, but said he was afraid they would never get it in Montana.”

While hearing attendees giggled and chortled about this figurative ass kicking somebody was supposed to receive, nobody actually addressed why this has been a problem for the better part of the last two decades. The real reason our broadband maps remain terrible is that telecom monopolies would prefer the public and lawmakers not receive an accurate picture of American broadband, lest somebody notice the mammoth deployment gaps and the countless American markets that lack any meaningful broadband competition whatsoever (especially at faster speeds).

The source of the FCC’s mapping data is the Form 477 data the agency collects from ISPs. This data has long been overly optimistic, and historically nobody really audits data provided by ISPs with a vested interest in downplaying deployment and competitive gaps. Worse, FCC policy dictates that the FCC deems an area “served” with broadband if just one ISP in a census tract has broadband. When somebody suggests that we should perhaps improve this data collection methodology, large ISPs like AT&T and Verizon pretty routinely lobby to prevent that from actually happening.

For example, when the previous, Wheeler-run FCC suggested we improve this methodology (pdf), Verizon complained in a filing (pdf) that more accurate data would be too costly and difficult for Verizon to adhere to:

“…the Commission must ensure that the costs of any new broadband data collection requirements do not outweigh the benefits. With respect to the Form 477, the Commission should avoid collecting data that is so detailed or voluminous that it is expensive for providers to produce, difficult for the Commission to process, or unhelpful to the public.”

Again though, ISPs like Verizon aren’t really worried about cost, the benefits to the public or how much work FCC staffers would have to do to process it, they’re simply worried that if we had accurate broadband maps, somebody might realize that U.S. broadband is a terrible hodgepodge of barely-motivated monopolies abusing angry and captive customers. Accurate data would highlight how Verizon has all but given up on upgrading or repairing aging DSL in countless states, and pricing data specifically would show how Americans pay some of the highest prices for the slowest service among all developed nations.

Once Ajit Pai was appointed FCC head, efforts to shore up broadband mapping were quickly forgotten. And again, you’d think that somebody at last week’s “oversight” hearing might have pointed this out. Instead, hearing attendees pretended that the United States’ terrible broadband maps had simply mysteriously materialized out of the ether, a blameless phenomenon apparently caused by shadowy gremlins. In reality, it’s long been abundantly clear why nobody wants to fix the problem: deep-pocketed ISPs by the name of Verizon, Comcast, Charter and AT&T don’t want the problem fixed.

If more accurate data further highlighted the massive problems in the U.S. broadband market, somebody might just get the crazy idea to actually fix it, and we certainly wouldn’t want that. Instead, for several decades now, the FCC and U.S. lawmakers have happily donned their ISP-provided rose-colored glasses, then played dumb when their real world experience doesn’t quite add up.

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Comments on “A Senator Says U.S. Broadband Maps 'Stink.' Here's Why Nobody Wants To Fix Them.”

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Gary (profile) says:

Nice Map

Hey that is a wonderful map. Says I have SIX choices. Three of them are ass satellite, two are Verizon and one Charter.
Satellite isn’t actually a working technology and shouldn’t be on the list, but I guess have three extra entries maps the map look nicer.
Verizon is listed as providing DSL and Fiber – but in reality they won’t run the cable to my complex.

So where can we file a report to correct the map entries?

Anonymous Coward says:

Many of our representative are very ignorant on tech issues as they do not have any idea how things work.

This is nothing new as it has been this way for some time, however past representatives had the forethought and responsibility to hire staff that did have working knowledge in the required fields – today this is not the case.

These people do not care, they are not going to fix anything

Anonymous Coward says:

Three potential fixes to the sector:

1. Spin infrastructure from the ISPs and regulate the infrastructure according to utility-regulation standards!

2. Force ISPs to name a price for installation in the area on the map and make them accountable for it throgh potential FTC-actions (Make people in the area able to leverage an install at that price). With a price on installlation, the mapping would be meaningful in determining the most effective political actions to support roll-outs!

3. Recast the responsibilities/opportunities of ISPs as retailers of general software-services and hardware-support for customers. The value-propositions may be reflected in higher prices, but a lot more flxibility for customers to focus on speeds, support or software packages.

Duhh says:

Re: Forgot a few...

Mandate that all advertising is based on “minimum” throughput.
Mandate that any dips in throughput are refunded based on loss of (((“minimum throughput * (60 * 60 * 24 * 365.25)) / ( seconds * throughput dip )) * 2.5 the cost of the service per second)
Complete outages would multiply that figure * 5 for the refund.

Make it illegal to use “speed” as part of the advertisements.
All ISP networks provide data at the same speed, light-speed.

Allow any ISP to sell service over this common infrastructure.

Repeat for all Cell service providers as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Not the same in the slightest. I am asking for them to put a price on a minimum installation-service and a minimum anual cost and make them liable for providing it at that cost.

Today, as you cite, you only need a ridiculously small fraction of an area to be serviceable (3% sale or 7 service locations) to include it on the map, making the map absolutely useless for any non-PR purpose.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

It would make the service map much more useful than it is today. Today they can run a cable by the edge of a neighborhood, sell to no one–in fact, absolutely refuse to sell to anyone–and the neighborhood could be included in their service map.

At least with my suggestion they would have to run a working cable to at least 7 houses in the neighborhood, for it to count.

Duhh says:

Sam Knows led to skewed data...

There is a program, that is supposed to report in things like throughput, reliability, uptime, latency, etc…

The program is called Sam Knows.

The ISPs are able to recognize that a Sam Knows device is plugged into one of their connections, and they adjust traffic to better serve those connections.

How do I know this? I actually signed up to be a part of Sam Knows, and my throughput was bumped from 12Mb/s to 24Mb/s, even though the ISP claims that only 12Mb/s is available in my area.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Sam Knows led to skewed data...

If you can’t see the product, you are the product. They are getting hella many informations to add to the information-packages they can sell about you to databrokers or advertisers directly. Unless you have some clear safeguard against third party sales a measle 25Mb/s may not be worth it in the future.

Isaac Teapish says:

Easy solution

Well, it’s pretty easy to resolve. If these are the areas that the ISP’s claim to be servicing, all the government has to do is force them to service these addresses. If the map says there’s service there, and the isp is telling the government there’s service there, there needs to be service there, and the ISP’s need to be legally bound to do it. When it becomes an obligation, the data will become a lot more accurate. Easy.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

This should be easy to crowdsource

Verizon has (a self-serving but valid) point.

Instead of asking the ISPs to tell the FCC where there’s broadband (they have every incentive to lie), ask the users.

Setup a website where people can indicate their geographical location (click on the map) and report what service is available there, at what price.

Manually filter the outlier data points for sanity.

In a few weeks you’ll have an accurate map, at almost no cost.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: "We... might offer service there?"

Verizon has (a self-serving but valid) point.

Yeah, I’m not seeing it. Knowing where you can offer service and to what extent should be the absolute minimum a company knows, as without that information you have no idea what to tell prospective customers who might become actual customers and/or buy from you, and no idea where you could expand to to get more customers who are currently not able to be served.

The idea that providing data they should already have would be in any way burdensome is absurd, and doesn’t even come close to passing the smell test.

The rest of your comment and the idea you proposed looks solid though.

ECA (profile) says:

And then God asks...WTF??

Looking at my rural area is so much fun..
The nearest larger city of about 16,000..
The Scale is backwards..and every section of this town is a different collar and number of access ISP’s..
Many locations dont even list the Satellite access, which is 2..

ANd the data rates…LMAO..

ANd some of the BLM lands have better access then I DO..

codetaku (profile) says:

These maps really are bad...

Just checked my address… I expected it to report too many options I don’t actually have. It has a few things I’ve never heard of, but, surprisingly, it completely misses my actual ISP. I have a 100mbps down cable connection from Spectrum. According to the FCC, the best I could possibly get would be 50mbps from Charter. Charter doesn’t serve my area. Then they list garbage satellite jokes, many of which I do not believe I could use because very few satellites can get line of sight from my property. Then it lists Frontier of all things. Frontier doesn’t want customers. They exist solely to collect money as a result of political favors. They purchased all of the copper phone lines from Verizon in my state and now offer wonderful benefits like month-long outages in home phone service and astronomical prices. To qualify for government money as part of Obama’s economic stimulus, they installed a fiber network. And then refused to attach even a single customer to it. It sits there, unused, because they don’t want customers. They got the check for the stimulus and that’s all they ever wanted. Last I looked, the 25mbps ADSL that they offer had a 5GB/mo download cap and cost $100+/mo. They do NOT want customers.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

“nobody really audits data provided by ISPs”

Perhaps the committee should have people from NY in to show how they used rigged boxes & flat out lied repeatedly to just pocket the cash and deliver shit.

Its the SOP not an outlier, the FCC is pointless when it is packed with people from the industry who get to go back to the industry at very nice salaries if the FCC doesn’t make them live up to a single promise or deliver the level of service they get in Bulgaria at a 3rd of our prices.

Jon Gleur says:

"subject was was barely even broached" -- Nobody cares, minion.

You’ve gotten a convincing answer, now just LET GO. It should "end all debate" as phrase of the day has it. By the way, I wrote at you that FCC didn’t just put that in place out of the blue, but it had been okayed all over. Who looks right now, huh? Even those who put a "D" after their name let you down.

As for main topic: it’s just one guy out in the wilds of wherever whining that there’s not a cell tower close enough to his house, and proposing that one be built at cost of several hundred thousand to someone else.

I remind foreigners that the US is VAST, not like you "huddled masses" in the former Europe. It’s no surprise that some places even in towns aren’t covered.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "subject was was barely even broached" -- Nobody cares, minion.

When it comes to vast areas by country, Russia if far larger, with Canada and China coming in ahead of the USA. When it comes to population the USA is 3rd behind China and India, with Russia down at 9 and Canada down at 38. So other countries have far worse problems when it comes to a spread out population, so quit making excuses.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "subject was was barely even broached" -- Nobody cares, minion.

The debate won’t end until the problem is fixed. Unless you somehow waved a magic wand and now everyone in the US is getting 100/100 Mbps fiber? Yeah, didn’t think so.

The fact that the FCC okayed it is irrelevant, the maps are wrong and don’t accurately reflect actual internet service in the areas they report. Who looks like an idiot now?

As for main topic: it’s just one guy out in the wilds of wherever whining that there’s not a cell tower close enough

Citation needed, where in the article is this even mentioned? In fact, there thousands of examples of people not able to get hard wire internet access in places that are "supposedly served" according to the FCC map. Not to mention the people who call their ISP to verify the address they are moving to is served, only to find out once they’ve moved and call to set up access, that the ISP lied to them and it isn’t actually served. Depending on the cost of the house, that now cost the consumer probably at least $100,000, if not more, because they may not have chosen to live there if they couldn’t get internet access.

It’s no surprise that some places even in towns aren’t covered.

Considering the ISPs took government money with assurances that they would provide internet access to those places, even in towns, it should be a surprise. But it’s not because ISPs are crooked as hell. So no, your point is invalid, there’s no excuse for the majority of Americans not having decent internet access, especially in the middle of a town or major city.

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