US Broadband Gaps Are Twice As Bad As The Government Claims

from the even-more-busted-than-you-thought 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.

If you want to see our terrible broadband maps at work, you need only go visit the FCC’s $350+ 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. Part of the problem is that the FCC declares an entire region “served” with broadband if just one home in a census block has service.

And guess what: it’s even worse than you think. A new study by BroadbandNow, compared the FCC’s data to data provided by the pre-qualification tools on ISPs’ websites. What they found was that U.S. broadband gaps are probably about twice as bad as the FCC has suggested:

“The firm examined broadband availability across the U.S. using more than 11,000 addresses from a dataset of 1 million. Those addresses were first compared to FCC data, then verified via the broadband availability websites of nine different internet service providers (ISPs). Even taking a conservative approach to estimates, the group claims the actual number of unserved American households is closer to 42 million?double FCC estimates.”

Oh, and it’s actually possible it’s even worse than this, given that even ISPs websites pre-qualification tools are notoriously unreliable, too. More than one homeowner has bought a new home after confirming (numerous times) with their ISP that the address has service, only to discover later that it most definitely does not.

After years of criticism the FCC finally recently proposed using more accurate geospatial and crowdsourced data, though those efforts have yet to materialize, and wireless carriers are lobbying hard to ensure that 5G wireless networks aren’t included in these improvements (lest they show how spotty 5G deployments really are). There’s also some concern that incumbent carriers may try to hijack the improvement process with an eye toward making this data and its collection less transparent than it should be.

Again, 20 years of bad broadband mapping data didn’t happen by accident, gaffe, or error. Industry has fought tooth and nail for years against more accurate broadband mapping data, knowing very well that once you’ve clearly identified a problem (in this case monopoly domination of a very broken market), somebody might just get the crazy idea to try and fix it.

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Comments on “US Broadband Gaps Are Twice As Bad As The Government Claims”

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bhull242 (profile) says:

Y’know, I get why the broadband companies don’t want to broadcast how spotty 5G deployment currently is (though I don’t think they have anything to really worry about given the current FCC and past history), but I am curious what the claimed justification for excluding 5G would be. I can’t really think of a claimed reason that wouldn’t make the spotty deployment obvious, anyway.

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JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: 100% coverage

Not a fundamental principle on the universe, more like all the money we’ve given to the telecoms, both directly and through tax breaks. The sheer amount they’ve been given should have gotten us 100% coverage several times over. Which is the "economic mechanism" that should provide the coverage – we’ve already paid them for it.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 100% coverage

The article doesn’t have anything to do with 100% coverage. This is about false advertising of existing coverage aided by the duplicity of a government agency tasked with regulating the industry. It is further about the false reporting of that same government agency to claim that its ill-conceived policies are effective.

What economic mechanism provided for your fallacious trolling today?

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: 100% coverage

what economic mechanism should provide such broadband coverage?

Ah the ideological imperative troll. Nice to see you again.

Others have covered that this article doesn’t actually call for a 100% coverage mandate, only that current coverage is vastly overstated. That said

In theory, more customers = more money, so 100% coverage is economic best practices. However, real world we recognize that 100% broadband coverage is not an economically feasible option. Rural areas would be unlikely to provide a return on investment and those that do might take too long to provide a roi or provide an roi that is not significant enough to make the investment in the first place.

But, given that the communication and economic benefits provided by internet and broadband are considered important, eliminating cost barriers to infrastructure build outs in un- and underserved areas is considered important. So the US does what governments do. They provide subsidies funded by the taxpayer to fund unprofitable build outs. And while I disagree with the specifics of this policy, we have for decades funded build outs in areas without broadband connectivity, particularly in rural areas to incentivize construction.

This is why accurate assessments of broadband availability are considered important, to determine whether the economic stimulus of subsidies are having the desired effect.

TL;DR: There is normally an economic disincentive to universal broadband, and the government is providing subsidies to counteract that, and understanding the effects of those subsidies are important to determining the effectiveness of those subsidies.

David (profile) says:

Re: 100% coverage

No, but the problem is that the ISP’s are allowed to lie about their coverage and have their monopolies protected by the government. Most industrialized countries have better coverage at lower costs. If the government wasn’t protecting the ISP’s, capitalism would force the ISP’s to provide better coverage at better prices.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: 100% coverage

Can I suggest…
That the Phone system and the Backbone were paid for, for a certain purpose..
Including the highways..

trying to get 1 side of the country to send knowledge to the other.. That every person could call and get assistance in case of emergency. That 1 coast line could call and tell the other side of our nation, SOMETHING IS WRONG..

Lets forget about comparing the USA to other nations…

  1. FEW nations are as large as the USA.
  2. Most of the larger nations are SPREAD OUT..
  3. Large Populations reside Near Larger rivers..
  4. work and industry are near larger rivers.
  5. installing lines Anyplace requires?? ROADS, and some easy way to get there to install things.

We need info…saying a country has ??? Speed on the net is asking China to build into the out lying areas FULL OF ROCKS..
Asking Russia is just as bad..
These nations probably have lines to the Local Police station and not much else.
Lets look at the WHOLE EU.. and they Do have some strange problems, with Who is responsible to install what and where.. Most of the countries are handled by 1 corp, not many more. Its like the USA with every State having different service.

This is abit of logic in this mess. and there are Thing even the Corps in the USA have not thought about..

IF’ they had updated and upgraded things over the years.. It Should be fairly easy to fix everything.
Long ago they made a decision to make everything underground.. Ummm ya…not much of that happened.
When the internet Hit, most locations were setup at 6% of use, meaning that at any time no more then 6% of the people would use the System. The internet sent that number to 80%. Then we get More advances…ATT was designed mostly for Phone wires..and that is 2 wires not designed to carry LOTS of signals..and most phone systems werent. Unless you could afford a corp account and $1000 per month…you were stuck at 56k.
So, who comes in to help..Cable and radio. But they need access to a Main line to setup location. Something that may not be local.

The internet isnt a net or pipeline, its a bunch of string picked off the floor and Wrapped into a ball, and its knotting itself up as we go. You cant tell what is connected to what..

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tom (profile) says:

Looked my address up. All of the options listed as available were either satellite or not really available except for the 12mb DSL service via the rural phone company.

If running electricity and basic phone service to most of the US locations had been done with the efficiency of the broadband rollout, probably half of the primary food production in the US would still be lit by kerosene lamps and have primary messaging via postal mail or hand delivered telegrams.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The best part of this, is that its going to show that After the original buildup of the system, Very little has changed in 60 years? then 20 years ago and the net went boom. And they did the very least of what was needed.
And the main complaint is that tech has Changed int he last 20 years and NONE have improved since.
Supposedly the main lines have been updated to the towns and cities, but not beyond.
Iv seen most updates in the rural areas(I live in one) because Cable Grabbed the idea, connected to the Fiber lines near by and ran with it, and charges good money($50-120) for a good connection.(100mbps to 1 gig) and its a solid connection, hardly eve going Down.
And the nightmares I hear of the larger cities, make me laugh, and the only contention I get is from those what have corp access that never disconnects.

Anonymous Coward says:

Had to try this

Having never done it, I went to the FCC’s hilariously titled "fixed broadband" map to plug in my address. I live in a south-eastern US state which readers of Techdirt will know is famous for its spotty coverage. I’m not rural. I don’t live in a major city, but I am within 30 miles of one that has a population just under 2 million, according to Wikipedia.

Before telling you the FCC’s map results: I have no broadband where I’m located. No cable, no DSL/hardwire, not even 4G. Cell coverage is <i>barely</i> enough to make a phone call using a $500 signal booster. Calls drop routinely even so, and the phone has to be placed within 3-4 feet of the cell booster’s broadcast device to work at all. This problem isn’t due to my house’s location, it’s the case in the entire county I’m located in. I and all of my neighbors have landline phones, because that’s the only way to reliably make a call. (Oh, and I get up to 20-25 robocalls on that line a day, including before 8am and after 9pm, and the line has been on the FCC’s laughable "do not call" list since the early 2000’s. Same story as my neighbors. But that’s another post).

The map lists 3 providers for "broadband" – all 3 are satellite providers.

First problem – the FCC claims ViaSat provides (I can’t help but audibly laugh as I type this) 100Mbps download speed to my area. ViaSat doesn’t even advertise that speed as a maximum potential – the best plan they’re currently offering is "up to" 50Mbps. But here’s the thing – I’m using that ViaSat plan. And it doesn’t get 50Mbps. It’s currently getting (according to Google’s speed test) exactly 1.2Mpbs. It has never gone above 1.5, and it’s usually below 1Mbps – most often in the 700kbps range (so, old 1990’s DSL speed). There is no speed guarantee with ViaSat – they can throttle it as far down as they like, for any reason, with no penalty. If you call them, they’ll claim "the network is congested." You have no way of verifying that claim, of course. And your price remains the same: $230/month. (It’s advertised at $150, but that’s before all the fees, friend).

Second problem – this map doesn’t even mention the bandwidth caps. ViaSat throttles ALL speeds down to about 56kpbs (yes, you read that right – that’s 56k dial-up modem speed) when you hit 25 mbps of usage. And yes, you’re still paying $230/month for this. So, download an old game like Skyrim? You’re on dial-up for the rest of the month, sucker.

(Note – I see that ViaSat’s website now says plans are only auto-throttled to that speed after you cross 100gb of usage now, but I’m on an older plan).

There are plans in my area without bandwidth caps. They’re from VSAT. The highest plan available does not have a guaranteed speed, but may achieve speeds up to 4Mbps. But no bandwidth cap?? I can hardly contain my excitement! Oh wait. It costs $3,450 per MONTH. No. That’s not a typo.

Oh, and you have to buy the equipment. It costs $2000. And $800 for installation.

Oh, and the FCC’s map includes this plan (and VSAT in general) as a "broadband option" for me.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Had to try this

Try to ask this shit on Ars Technica when Richard Bennett shows up. He’ll insist that the maps are accurate, no questions asked. When confronted otherwise he’ll say "AT&T/Comcast will invest! Totes promise!" When pushed further he’ll go "Why do you need reliable Internet access anyway? Only pirates would want that much Internet! Fucking leftists!"

Every single time.

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