FCC Still Doesn't Know Where Broadband Is As It Eyes $9 Billion In New Subsidies
from the can't-fix-what-you-don't-understand dept
Despite what you might think, the U.S. government doesn’t actually know where broadband is really available, which is kind of a problem when you consider the FCC doles out billions annually in subsidies to expand and improve service.
Later this month, the Pai FCC is expected to sign off on a new plan (pdf) that would dole out $9 billion in funding to help shore up fifth generation (5G) wireless coverage to rural areas. Consumer groups and academics have long argued, however, that the FCC’s broadband availability maps have only a fleeting relationship to reality. That concern was mirrored by the Competitive Carriers Association, a coalition of largely small and mid-sized carriers, which issued a statement warning the FCC that it shouldn’t be throwing billions in subsidies around without having an accurate understanding of the problem the agency is trying to fix:
“Unfortunately, the FCC is publishing eligibility maps that bear little relationship to where there is or is not actually coverage. The analysis itself notes that the maps released today may bear little resemblance to the areas actually available for funding in an auction, which is extremely concerning. At a time when everyone is recognizing the importance of bridging the digital divide, the FCC seems intent on moving forward with spending $9 billion without bothering to measure the scope of the problem they are purporting to solve.
This approach does nothing to help ensure that unserved and underserved areas have access to robust mobile broadband services. Instead of further analysis on what areas could be eligible, the FCC should focus on implementing the Broadband DATA Act to make data-driven decisions about what areas should receive funding for the next decade of mobile deployment.”
And this is the industry saying this. Activists, consumer, groups, and other experts have been using more colorful and direct language to complain about this problem for the better part of two decades now.
Granted, terrible U.S. broadband maps are a feature, not a bug. Bigger 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. Bad maps not only help hide a lack of competition and high prices (two subjects the current FCC can’t even acknowledge, much less fix), but they help obscure the billions we’ve thrown at carriers to build sometimes duplicative network assets that often don’t fix the problems the money was assigned for.
Fortunately the recently passed Broadband Data Act should help improve mapping somewhat, requiring the FCC explore and adopt measures to shore up accuracy via crowdsourcing and other data. Carriers will now be penalized under law for falsifying data, and the use of broader data sources (rather than just taking a carrier’s word for it, the norm for 20 years) should certainly help. But like many starved regulators, the FCC lacks the funding to actually implement the act at present, and even ideally it could be years before the better data is put to policy use. Bigger carriers are also trying to exclude 5G from the improvements.
In the interim, we’ll continue doing what we’ve always done, flinging about billions in subsidies without actually fully understanding the scope of the problem we’re trying to fix. That was always a problem, but it’s a far more pressing one now that many folks understand the essential nature of decent, affordable broadband connectivity.