The FCC Doesn't Actually Know How Many People Have Broadband
from the busted-data dept
For a country that likes to talk about “being number one” a lot, that’s sure not reflected in the United States’ broadband networks, or the broadband maps we use to determine which areas lack adequate broadband or competition (resulting in high prices and poor service). Our terrible broadband maps are, of course, a feature not a bug. ISPs have routinely lobbied to kill any efforts to improve data collection and analysis, lest somebody actually realize the telecom market is a broken mono/duopoly whose dysfunction reaches into every aspect of tech.
While these shaky maps have been the norm for several decades, recent bipartisan pressure by states (upset that they’re not getting their share of taxpayer subsidies because we don’t actually know where broadband is) has finally forced even the Ajit Pai FCC and the telecom industry to take some modest action.
US Telecom, a lobbying org largely backed by AT&T, has been conducting trials in Missouri and Virginia that utilize a new broadband mapping system that integrates hundreds of millions of data points, statistical scoring, and managed crowdsourcing to get a far more accurate assessment of broadband availability. The results? A huge chunk of the areas the FCC has long claimed have broadband, don’t:
“In Missouri and Virginia, up to 38% of rural homes and businesses that the FCC counts as having broadband access actually do not, the new research found. That’s more than 445,000 unconnected homes and businesses that the FCC would call “served” with its current system.
Given that the new research covered just two states with a combined population of 14.6 million (or 4.5% of the 327.2 million people nationwide), it’s likely that millions of homes nationwide have been wrongly counted as served by broadband. A full accounting of how the current data exaggerates access could further undercut FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s claims that repealing net neutrality rules and other consumer protection measures have dramatically expanded broadband access.”
Granted most of this is due to the flawed Form 477 data the FCC collects from ISPs. Historically, nobody has confirmed that the data ISPs provided is really accurate, letting ISPs spend years falsely overstating broadband availability. The FCC’s methodology had long made the problem worse by determining an entire census blocked “served” with broadband if just one home in that zone had broadband.
The industry has long opposed more accurate mapping because it would only serve to highlight the industry’s coverage and competitive shortcomings. That’s a major reason why the FCC’s $350 million broadband map omits pricing data and largely hallucinates both availability and speeds. And the industry is only finally buckling to pressure now because it knows better mapping efforts are inevitable, and they want to be the ones in control of the data. Some consumer advocates are understandably concerned that less transparency into the raw data may be the industry’s broader goal.
Whether the FCC will adopt US Telecom’s approach is unclear. But what is clear is that the agency tasked with improving broadband deployment in the US doesn’t actually know who has broadband and hasn’t for the better part of the last decade. What’s also fairly clear is that the Pai FCC’s claims that gutting consumer protections (like net neutrality) have dramatically boosted broadband availability, are routinely not supported by, you know, facts. It’s kind of hard to claim your policies are having a profound impact on broadband availability when you don’t actually know where broadband’s available in the first place.