GAO Again Points Out That Terrible U.S. Broadband Maps Drive (Intentionally) Terrible Broadband Policy

from the round-and-round-we-go dept

We’ve made it pretty clear by now that U.S. broadband policy generally stinks because the nation’s biggest broadband providers (and the politicians who adore their campaign contributions) want to keep the U.S. broadband market as it is: uncompetitive, expensive, and broken. There are myriad ways they accomplish this, from quite literally writing and lobbying for the passage of protectionist state laws, to convincing regulators like Ajit Pai to turn a blind eye to pretty much all of the worst habits of entrenched telecom mono/duopolies.

But at the heart of the problem sits the flawed form 477 broadband mapping data the FCC collects from broadband providers. With a vested interest in portraying a healthy market, ISPs have long submitted data that over-states broadband speed and availability. And, like a loyal servant to the industry it’s supposed to hold accountable, the FCC (under both parties) rarely does much to actually verify that this data is accurate. This bad data then goes on to inform bad FCC policy.

Case in point: the GAO released a study last week noting that the FCC routinely overstates broadband availability in tribal areas, which in turn results in policy that doesn’t do a good job fixing the problem. As the report (pdf) notes, the flimsy, unverified data the FCC collects is only compounded by odd FCC methodology decisions, like declaring an entire area “served” with broadband if just one home in a census tract has service:

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) collects data on broadband availability from providers, but these data do not accurately or completely capture broadband access on tribal lands. Specifically, FCC collects data on broadband availability; these data capture where providers may have broadband infrastructure. However, FCC considers broadband to be ?available? for an entire census block if the provider could serve at least one location in the census block. This leads to overstatements of service for specific locations like tribal lands. FCC, tribal stakeholders, and providers have noted that this approach leads to overstatements of broadband availability. Because FCC uses these data to measure broadband access, it also overstates broadband access?the ability to obtain service?on tribal lands.

The bad data, and the FCC’s unwillingness to do anything about it for the last twenty years, then has a cascading effect down the line, the GAO found:

Additionally, FCC does not collect information on several factors?such as affordability, quality, and denials of service?that FCC and tribal stakeholders stated can affect the extent to which Americans living on tribal lands can access broadband services. FCC provides broadband funding for unserved areas based on its broadband data. Overstatements of access limit FCC?s and tribal stakeholders? abilities to target broadband funding to such areas. For example, some tribal officials stated that inaccurate data have affected their ability to plan their own broadband networks and obtain funding to address broadband gaps on their lands.

Of course this is certainly a problem for tribal areas, especially given the Pai FCC’s decision to try and limit the broadband improvement subsidies that help expand broadband coverage to these areas (which is odd for a guy that prattles on endlessly about how fixing the digital divide is his top priority).

But this same problem is playing out everywhere in the country, as cable providers secure a growing monopoly over broadband thanks to telcos that refuse to upgrade aging DSL lines at any real scale.

Our $350 million broadband map does a fairly terrible job mapping broadband, but it does do a wonderful job perfectly illustrating the width and breadth of this problem. The map is supposed to “educate and inform” Americans as to broadband availability. But as we’ve pointed out repeatedly, the plan hallucinates both speeds and ISP availability, and fails to include any data at all on pricing (at ISP request). You can try it out yourself here, perhaps noting that most of the ISPs it claims are available at your address likely don’t exist.

The end result is government regulators who look at one of the most broken markets in America through rose-colored glasses, resulting in our national broadband dysfunction never getting much better. And of course when somebody at the FCC does get the crazy idea of improving mapping and availability, ISP lobbyists quickly get to work killing those efforts. And, as you might suspect, the problem has only gotten worse under FCC boss Ajit Pai, who has taken steps to weaken the very definition of “competition” itself at incumbent ISP behest.

As such, keep in mind, when you see data highlighting how terrible U.S. broadband is, you can be fairly certain it’s significantly worse than that. And the reason should be pretty obvious: if somebody were to accurately illustrate the monopoly Comcast, Charter, Verizon, and AT&T enjoy (and the impact this has on everything from pricing to net neutrality), somebody might just get the crazy idea to embrace policies that actually do something about it.

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “GAO Again Points Out That Terrible U.S. Broadband Maps Drive (Intentionally) Terrible Broadband Policy”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
tom (profile) says:

$350,000,000 for a known bad map? There is part of the problem. Wonder how many rural locations that could setup for fiber?

I got lucky in my new rural location and can get 12mb DSL. The tech said if I was a 1/2 mile farther from the fiber ran up the highway, likely no service at all. Yet the whole area is a solid 10+mb speed on the last map I saw.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Where does that number come from? Did the government really spend $350 million to create the map? It’s not in the report.

The logical thing to do would be to have ISPs tell us every address with service available. And have them guarantee the list: if it ends up they can’t serve an address, they have to fix their network.

G A O Schwartz says:

By the way, Breitbart has exposed typical GAO worker:

O’Keefe Deep State Investigation — GAO Auditor: ‘We Want to Destroy Capitalists’…

Another anti-American activist trying to destroy the country on our payroll. I’ve told you kids, the rabbit hole is DEEP, has had warrens dug for around a hundred years at least. EVERY part of the gov’t is corrupt. — Oh, not to you who want to destroy America too! But the above link exposes why Techdirt so often find GAO reports handy.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...