Study Finds US Broadband Gaps Three Times Worse Than The FCC Claims
from the can't-fix-a-problem-you-can't-acknowledge dept
As one of his last acts as Trump’s FCC boss, former agency Chairman Ajit Pai released a rosy report claiming that America was making great strides in bridging the “digital divide.” According to the report (pdf), 14.5 million Americans now lack access to broadband, down from 21.3 million one year earlier. This progress, Pai proclaimed, was directly thanks to his decision to effectively lobotomize the FCC’s consumer protection authority at telecom lobbyist behest:
“From my first day as Chairman, the FCC?s top priority has been closing the digital divide. It?s heartening to see these numbers, which demonstrate that we?ve been delivering results for the American people,? said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
“These successes resulted from forward-thinking policies that removed barriers to infrastructure investment and promoted competition and innovation. I look forward to seeing the Commission continue its efforts to ensure that all Americans have broadband access.”
But the numbers, and the claims, were based on little more than fantasy. A new study released this week manually inspected actual broadband availability at 58,883 different addresses across 11 ISPs in 48 states. They found that the real number of Americans without broadband access is likely somewhere closer to 42 million, or roughly three times higher than official government estimates:
“The firm manually checked broadband availability for 58,883 U.S. addresses at 11 different internet service providers (ISPs) across 48 states. They then compared this data with the Form 477 data ISPs provide the FCC, and found industry and the FCC routinely over reported broadband availability all across the country.”
There’s ample debate among telecom data nerds about the degree of the problem, but there’s a fairly widespread consensus on the fact there really is a problem. There’s several reasons it persists. One, ISPs have historically provided overly rosy data to the FCC, which the FCC lacks the staff, resources, or sometimes willpower (if AT&T and Comcast lobbyists get their way) to accurately and consistently verify. Another reason is the FCC continues to use a bizarre methodology that declares an entire census block “served” by broadband if just one home in that block can theoretically get service:
“There is a widely acknowledged flaw with Form 477 reporting,? the study noted. ?If an ISP offers service to at least one household in a census block, then the FCC counts the entire census block as covered by that provider.? In many rural areas, a census block can encompass hundreds of square miles.”
Keep in mind that independent broadband experts say the FCC also dramatically underestimates the number of Americans living under a monopoly (83 million according to some estimates). The FCC historically also doesn’t do a good job collecting or sharing data on broadband prices, which helps the telecom industry downplay the obvious impact regional monopolization and corruption has on real-world consumer costs.
This has been a problem for the better part of the last few decades, meaning the lion’s share of government policy decisions are being based on a distorted and unnecessarily optimistic view of the problem. This also opens the door to folks like Ajit Pai using overly inflated progress to justify policies that often harm the market and consumers (like the mindless rubber stamping of megamergers, or the elimination of FCC consumer protections on net neutrality and privacy). “We don’t need competent and consistent oversight of telecom monopolies, because things are already going so well!”
And while the government last year passed a new law (the DATA Act) that demands the FCC fix these problems, actual fixes (assuming they’re even implemented correctly) will be years away. In the interim we’re doling out billions in additional subsidies to fix a problem we’re still incapable of actually measuring.