There Have Been Decades Of Broadband Policy And Subsidies And We’re Only Just Now Accurately Measuring Their Impact
from the can't-fix-what-you-can't-measure dept
This FCC this week formally announced it had finally started gathering more accurate broadband mapping data from U.S. ISPs after more than a decade of complaints about mapping accuracy.
“On June 30, the Federal Communications Commission opened the first ever window to collect information from broadband providers in every state and territory about precisely where they provide broadband services,” FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel stated in a press release.
“For the first time ever, we have collected extensive location-by-location data on precisely where broadband services are available, and now we are ready to get to work and start developing new and improved broadband maps,” she added.
Think about that for a moment. Decades of broadband policy and programs, and countless billions in taxpayer subsidies, and we only just started accurately trying to figure out if those efforts actually made a difference. It’s not a landmark the gadget and gossip obsessed tech press will give much attention to, but it matters all the same.
We’ve noted many times how there’s an historic amount of money being thrown at the U.S. broadband “digital divide” this year. The broadband infrastructure bill alone designates $42 billion to expanding broadband access. Billions more in COVID relief money started flowing this week courtesy of the Treasury Department.
The problem: the government still doesn’t actually know where broadband is or isn’t available because U.S. broadband maps “stink,” as one senator put it a few years ago. They overstate speeds, availability, and competition, helping U.S. telecom monopolies obscure the market harms of mindless consolidation and the corruption that historically protects it.
The FCC only in the last few years finally started fixing its shitty mapping after Congress demanded it as part of the Broadband DATA Act. It demands the FCC use more crowdsourced data, do a better job confirming data delivered by ISPs, and utilize better methodology (the FCC long declared an entire census block “served” with broadband if an ISP claimed it could provide broadband to just one home in that census block).
There’s still plenty of work to be done. States tell me the FCC hasn’t yet really provided an effective way to let states challenge ISP data they know to be false (though the FCC is working on it). Big ISPs lobbyists are also working overtime doing everything they can to ensure looming subsidies go to them and not to smaller competitors or community broadband efforts.
Because the telecom lobby has successfully gridlocked the appointment of third Democratic Commissioner Gigi Sohn to the FCC, the agency may not be able to finalize a confirmation vote for the new maps, putting funding at risk. They also will lack the voting majority needed to meaningfully hold ISPs accountable should it be found they’re not cooperating with accurate data.
Still, given we’ve gone decades making policy and subsidy funding decisions based on little more than delusion and pipe dreams, the fact that government is even trying to take this seriously is a step in the right direction for broader broadband access and increased competition. You can’t fix a problem you can’t measure, and for decades U.S. broadband policymakers were in the dark.