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With Terrible Federal Broadband Data, States Are Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands

from the rose-colored-glasses dept

As a director of a state broadband program, one of my biggest challenges is data. I know lots of areas in my state have inadequate or no service. I get those emails every day. We have a public facing broadband map which is based on the data that the internet service providers (ISPs) provide to the FCC on what is known as the Form 477. The notorious problem with the 477 data is that gross inaccuracies are built into the reporting. ISPs report advertised speeds based on census blocks, where if one home in a census block is served, or could reasonably be served, the entire census block is considered served.

What this means, besides extreme frustration on the part of state broadband authorities and communities, is that we do not have the information needed to make decisions on where resources (money and time) should be spent. States have tried for years to get their ISPs to provide better information. I even changed the statute this year to require it. To no avail. So what should states like Maine do?

I firmly believe that it is time to pull the power from the ISPs and give it to the community. ISPs are businesses, and we have great partnerships with many of them in our state. But our interest as a State is to get people broadband. All people. And high-quality broadband that meet the use requirements that have only grown under COVID. Our mission and an ISP’s mission are sometimes at odds. And that is ok. But we must take the power of information on who is served and who is not (and at what quality service) back and put it in the hands of consumers. Or, in state government speak, taxpayers.

Luckily, others across the country have the same goal. This past year a number of states have contracted with GeoPartners to undertake a comprehensive speed testing strategy. The platform is easy for the end user to navigate and use. There are other companies doing similar work, and M-labs, a consortium of research, industry, and public-interest partners, also provides the largest collection of open Internet performance data on the planet.

In Maine, the state broadband office, ConnectMaine, is working closely with the Maine Broadband Coalition with a variety of community partners including Island Institute, Greater Portland Council of Governments, Maine Community Foundation, Maine West and others to roll out this strategy. A strong marketing strategy, and outreach to get as many people as possible to take the test is a critical factor in the success of this initiative. Maine launched the project through a community building project called the Maine West Boot Camp in mid October, and plans to expand it statewide by the end of the year.

So why are states doing this? Maine has had a community planning process in place for about four years. While we have seen some successes in expanding service to those areas, we have also discovered roadblocks. One of them is who in a community has service at what level. Prior to this citizen lead speed test initiative, that knowledge was all in the hands of the incumbent ISP.

Engaging communities in this process does a couple of really important things: it puts an important piece of the puzzle squarely in the hands of the consumer, removing a road block that can hang a community up for months waiting for answers from the ISP. It puts the power of determining the scope of the project firmly in the hands of the community. It can motivate other communities who are not connected to jump into and begin the process of improving their service.

Crowdsourced speed tests also provide state broadband offices with the information they need to justify funding, direct resources, and lay out a strategy to address the real problem in there state, not the problem defined by inaccurate FCC data.

Also, not to be understated: it gives states, in my case Maine, the power and the data to challenge the FCC data. Right now, the FCC is preparing to give out $16.4B based on data that everyone acknowledge (even the FCC) is accurate.

Yet they persist. And not for the first time. CAFII provided billions of dollars to rate of return carriers to bring 10/1 Mbps (a substandard speed when the started the program seven year ago) to more people. They just extended that program another year. Despite the evidence that some providers have not built out as required.

Many of Maine’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) areas are in what we call “unorganized territories”, which are exactly what the name implies: not towns and not that populated. In other words not one that is targeted. Areas like the RDOF-eligible area northeast of Baxter State Park with its 825 possible locations probably will likely not get served any other way (if in fact they even get served with this program.) But RDOF proposes to spend $10 million in subsidies to bring service to 825 possible locations while many, many unserved rural communities that the FCC deems as “served” with their mapping are not eligible for a dime. That is a waste of resources. And without good data, states are powerless to protest.

In response, we are going to go out and get our own data, and empower those communities to take up this gauntlet and take charge of their own future.

As executive director of ConnextMaine, Peggy Schaffer manages the Authority’s rulemaking efforts, investment decisions and policy recommendations. Peggy was the Small Business Advocate for the Secretary of State’s office, and served as the Co-chair of the Maine Broadband Coalition, a statewide group advocating for high speed broadband.

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Comments on “With Terrible Federal Broadband Data, States Are Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands”

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Pixelation says:

Unfortunately, it is often cheaper to pay off legislators and get shills placed in regulatory agencies than to build out infrastructure. It would be helpful to have bright lights on the cockroaches. Some well put together documentaries might be useful.

I imagine, one of the issues is figuring out the actual cost of rolling out service to rural areas. I’m not sure what the answer is, but holding ISP’s to account and fining them when they fail to live up to agreements would be a start.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Just need a trencher.
Cuts a Thin line in the ground and LAY the Lines Installed in protective housing, RIGHT into the ground.
Every few hundred feet you have a Service hole.
That or you Run it threw the Sewer system. A machine ot Staple it onto the Ceiling. in Water proof Tubing.

HOW long have we suggested that Towns/cities DO THIS?
HOw long have we suggested MANUALLY testing the Whole system.

For all the money we have Paid in taxes and ISP services, this could have been done years ago.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

HOW long have we suggested that Towns/cities DO THIS?

The linked project was carried out by the actual people that it serves, including them learning new skill like fibre splicing. They negotiated their rights of way, it helped that they were serving the owners of the land, and they were flexible about routing and cabinet etc. placement. Other than permits to go under roads etc., no councils or other politicians involved.

Anonymous Coward says:

and tomorrow the ISPs will have ‘encouraged’ more in congress to help them and any and all initiatives to take the pathetic service out of their hands will not just stopped, but prevented from it happening in the future. probably be a few people who are behind the initiative will lose their jobs too! less face it, the isps are gonna do whatever possible to maintain their iron grip and continue to get funding for what they never accomplish. they’re no different to the entertainment industries doing whatever possible to maintain their iron grip on media while doing whatever possible to take control of the best distribution chanel invented so far, the Internet!!

That One Guy (profile) says:

Treat it, and call it, as it is

Would be really nice if politicians and prosecutors weren’t so overwhelmingly corrupt and starting bringing the hammer down on ISPs for engaging in such practices. If you publicly state that you do offer service in a given area but you don’t that sure as hell sounds like fraud to me, and should be punished accordingly, and it just gets worse when you’re lying and claiming to have done something that you were paid to do.

Throw a few execs in jail for a while and I imagine they might see the benefit to honesty, as unlike a financial penalty that one would hit them personally.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

FFS, that’s the whole bloody point if opening it up to the market. Stop ‘picking winners’ and let competition sort it out. That way, every mistake costs money that people have a choice about investing.

Protip: That "free market" is the reason why they lack the information.

Between a regulatory captured FCC, bought and paid for legislative bans on local competition, massive lobbying campaigns, taxpayer infrastructure funding given directly to shareholders, non-compete agreements, and other monopolistic practices your so called "free market" is directly responsible for the current state of internet services in the US. To the point that groups other industries (Google) have tried to deploy alternatives and have failed. (Louisville, KY for example.) While other industries are held back by it. (The media industry and their streaming services.)

Capitalism isn’t perfect. Without direction the invisible hand will very quickly give society the finger as it takes more and more for itself and gives nothing back.

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