FCC Broadband Report: What Broadband Competition Problem?
from the nothing-to-see-here dept
By law, the FCC is required once a year to issue a report indicating whether quality broadband is being deployed on a “reasonable and timely basis.” If not, the agency is supposed to, you know, actually do something about it. Unsurprisingly, the Pai FCC last year issued a glowing report declaring that everything was going swimmingly, despite some glaring evidence to the contrary. After all, the nation’s phone companies have effectively stopped upgrading their DSL lines, leaving cable giants like Comcast with a quietly growing monopoly over faster broadband speeds (no, 5G won’t magically fix this).
This week, the FCC once again issued a report stating that broadband was being deployed in a reasonable and timely basis. As with the earlier, leaked versions of this report, the FCC has been quick to proclaim that some modest improvement in overall broadband availability was thanks to Pai FCC policies like killing net neutrality:
“According to the FCC?s latest study, the number of Americans lacking access to a broadband (defined by the FCC as 25 Mbps downstream, 3 Mbps upstream) has dropped from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 21.3 million Americans at the end of 2017. The FCC said availability of 250 Mbps connections grew 36 percent in 2017.
?This report shows that our approach is working,? Pai said of the report before it was formally released to the public. ?But we won?t rest until all Americans can have access to broadband and the 21st century opportunities it provides to communities everywhere.”
But there are several problems with this claim. One, this growth is well in line with past years. Two, much of the growth in the report is thanks to things Pai had nothing to do with. For example, while Pai’s FCC takes credit for “record” fiber growth last year, at least half of the lines deployed were thanks to conditions affixed by the previous FCC to AT&T’s 2015 merger with DirecTV. Similarly, a not insubstantial portion of the broadband speed and availability improvements are courtesy of community broadband networks Pai’s FCC actively opposes. And while Pai has also tried to claim some of the growth is thanks to killing net neutrality, the report’s data is only current up to the end of 2017. Net neutrality wasn’t officially repealed until June of 2018.
This is all before you get to the fact that none of this data is reliable because US broadband mapping and availability data is hot garbage, something all five Commissioners (after years of complaints) have finally started to acknowledge:
“?We need to stop relying on data we know is wrong,? Rosenworcel said. ?Putting aside the embarrassing fumble of the FCC blindly accepting incorrect data for the original version of this report, there are serious problems with its basic methodology. Time and again this agency has acknowledged the grave limitations of the data we collect to assess broadband deployment.?
Gigi Sohn, a lawyer for the previous FCC, told Motherboard in a statement that you can?t fix a problem you don?t really understand.
?The FCC’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report is hopelessly flawed and cannot be the basis for future policymaking,? Sohn said. ?Nor does it validate Chairman Pai?s unsubstantiated claims that his policies have helped to close the digital divide.”
You’ll also note that this report, much like the FCC’s $250 million broadband map, fails utterly to even mention the high cost of broadband in the United States. While the FCC obtains pricing data from ISPs, it has long shirked away from sharing this data with the public, lest somebody get a better sense of the hugely negative impact limited competition has on the US market.
Another notable bit of amusement: an earlier draft of Pai’s report was found to have been based on an ISP clerical error that resulted in the FCC overstating broadband availability by some 62 million households. When Pai released the initial synopsis of the report, he proclaimed that the near-mystical growth was a direct reflection of his policies. After consumer groups pointed out the errors in the data the FCC quietly fixed the error, but left its conclusions the same. The FCC’s newest Commissioner, Geoffrey Starks, found that a little bit odd:
“The fact that a 2019 Broadband Deployment Report with an error of over 62 million connections was circulated to the full Commission raises serious questions. Was the Chairman?s office aware of the errors when it circulated the draft report? If not, why didn?t an ?outlier? detection function raise alarms with regard to Barrier Free? Also, once the report was corrected, the fact that such a large number of connections came out of the report?s underlying data without changing the report?s conclusion, and without resulting in a substantial charge to the report, calls into question the extent to which the report and its conclusions depend on and flow from data.”
Again, none of this is really new. While the FCC has always had a tenuous relationship with factual data under both parties, Pai’s FCC has taken this to an entirely new level. It’s clear to pretty much everybody that US broadband is an incredibly broken market dominated by some of the least-liked natural monopolies in America. But Pai has yet to stand up to telecom giants on a single issue of substance, and his FCC has been caught repeatedly just blindly using massaged telecom lobbyist data to justify policies that have been widely criticized, on a bipartisan basis, for making existing problems (particularly high prices) worse.