AT&T Provided FCC Bunk Broadband Availability Data Across 20 States
from the driving-blind dept
We’ve noted repeatedly that despite a lot of talk from U.S. leaders and regulators about the “digital divide,” the United States doesn’t actually know where broadband is available. Historically the FCC has simply trusted major ISPs — with a vested interest in downplaying coverage and competition gaps — to tell the truth. The FCC’s methodology has also long been flawed, considering an entire area to be connected if just one home in a census tract has service. The results are ugly: the FCC’s $350 million broadband availability map all but hallucinates broadband availability and speed (try it yourself).
As pressure mounts on the agency to finally improve its broadband mapping, the scope of the problem continues to come into focus. Like this week, when AT&T was forced to acknowledge that the company provided the FCC with inaccurate broadband availability data across 20 states, impacting some 3,600 census blocks:
“AT&T disclosed the error to the FCC in a filing a week ago. The filing provides “a list of census blocks AT&T previously reported as having broadband deployment at speeds of at least 25Mbps downstream/3 Mbps upstream that AT&T has removed from its Form 477 reports.” The 78-page list includes nearly 3,600 blocks.”
You’ll recall that last year, Ajit Pai tried to claim that his “deregulatory agenda” (read: gutting oversight of an uncompetitive and hugely unpopular business sector) resulted in some amazing broadband expansion. Only later was it revealed that much of this growth either was triggered by things Pai’s FCC had nothing to do with (like fiber build-out requirements affixed to AT&T’s 2015 merger with DirecTV by the previous FCC), or a broadband mapping blunder by a small provider by the name of BarrierFree, which overstated its footprint to the FCC by a cool 1.5 million locations.
AT&T insists this latest error was caused by a “software bug,” and while relatively small in the scope of AT&T’s overall service area, consumer groups are a little curious how it could have gone unnoticed for the better part of two years:
“Aside from one even bigger error by an ISP called BarrierFree last year, Turner said he hasn’t “seen any other ISP reporting error like this before” and that “it is curious that the [AT&T] error may have gone unnoticed for 2-plus years.”…”While relatively small errors like this don’t end up changing conclusions about national trends, it certainly can impact the FCC decisions about where to spend?and where to not spend?scarce subsidy funds,” Turner said. “AT&T should be quite a bit more forthcoming about the exact nature of this error and how it discovered it, so that other ISPs can be sure they’re not making similar errors.”
While there’s no evidence of intentional under-reporting by AT&T, the timing is curious all the same.
After several decades of complaints, pressure has mounted on the FCC and Congress to actually do something as states vie for additional deployment subsidies. That culminated in the recent passage of the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, which mandates the FCC to use more accurate geolocation and crowdsourced data to create more accurate maps and actually verify where broadband’s available before doling out billions in subsidies or issuing policy (fancy that!).
It will take years to complete, the FCC has warned they can’t afford to finish it without more funding, and the industry, which has spent years lobbying against mapping improvements for obvious reasons, could still find ways to either scuttle the effort or make access to the data difficult. Still, baby steps and all that. There are at least indications that the “what US broadband competition problem?” telecom policy set finally realizes this is a problem that needs fixing, even if truly better broadband maps are still several years away.