Microsoft Data Shows That The FCC's Broadband Maps Are Fantasy

from the rose-colored-glasses dept

We’ve noted for a very long time that despite a lot of lip service about broadband, the U.S. government still doesn’t have a very good idea of where broadband is or isn’t available. There’s a long line of reasons for this, including political pressure by regional monopolies that very much don’t want a lack of competition or these coverage gaps to be apparent (somebody might get the crazy idea to try and fix the problem!). The FCC has also long been criticized for methodology that declares a census block (which can be hundreds of square miles in rural areas) “served” with broadband if just one home can theoretically get service from an ISP.

After decades of this, the government last year finally took action and passed the DATA Act, which tasks the FCC with fixing the problem. The Biden FCC last February also belatedly announced a “task force” to examine the problem in more detail. But we’re still years away from any of these changes being implemented (assuming they’re even implemented competently), something of cold comfort to those struggling to afford internet access right now during a pandemic and economic crisis.

Meanwhile, the problem persists. The Verge this week utilized data from Microsoft then compared it to FCC and industry data to create a more accurate map of U.S. broadband access. In numerous regions, the disparity is almost comical:

“The disparity between FCC reports and the Microsoft data can be shocking. In Lincoln County, Washington, an area west of Spokane with a population just a hair over 10,000, the FCC lists 100 percent broadband availability. But according to Microsoft?s data, only 5 percent of households are actually connecting at broadband speeds.”

Note that even this data isn’t entirely accurate because it’s measuring what speeds are currently being used, not what’s always available. That means users may have access to faster speeds, but potentially didn’t subscribe due to high costs. That in turn is due to a lack of competition, something experts say also isn’t accurately measured by the FCC. But it’s not just Microsoft data that showcases how the FCC’s broadband availability maps aren’t remotely connected to reality.

If you want to see the problem in personalized detail, just spend a little time with the FCC’s $350 million broadband map, which all but hallucinates competitors, availability, and speeds — while excluding (at telecom industry behest) any meaningful measurement of a key metric: price. $350 million is a steep price tag just to look at the world through rose-colored glasses.

Of course, industry has historically opposed broadband mapping reform, because it only highlights a lack of access and competition, driving folks to action. The false progress painted by bad data is also routinely used by telecom-allied lawmakers (like Ajit Pai) to justify the dismantling of government oversight or the rubber stamping of megamergers that reduce competition even further. And while the resulting “digital divide” is often treated as a problem that magically appeared one day, it’s important to remember that this is a policy choice, and the direct result of twenty years of government policies that prioritized the interests of regional monopolies (not coincidentally tethered to our intelligence gathering systems).

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Comments on “Microsoft Data Shows That The FCC's Broadband Maps Are Fantasy”

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4 Comments
Boba Fat (profile) says:

No broadband at all

I recently bought a house in a US city of ~100,000 people. My next-door neighbor has AT&T DSL, as did the previous owner of my house. AT&T (well, the person playing loud music in the background who handles their calls) tells me that they can’t provide service to my address, because "the wires are old or something". There’s a cable internet provider, but the nearest endpoint is 825 feet away (I measured it). They estimate it will cost me $4000 up front and "several months" to connect to my house. Those are my choices. Thanks, FCC.

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