GAO Again Points Out That Terrible U.S. Broadband Maps Drive (Intentionally) Terrible Broadband Policy

from the round-and-round-we-go dept

We've made it pretty clear by now that U.S. broadband policy generally stinks because the nation's biggest broadband providers (and the politicians who adore their campaign contributions) want to keep the U.S. broadband market as it is: uncompetitive, expensive, and broken. There are myriad ways they accomplish this, from quite literally writing and lobbying for the passage of protectionist state laws, to convincing regulators like Ajit Pai to turn a blind eye to pretty much all of the worst habits of entrenched telecom mono/duopolies.

But at the heart of the problem sits the flawed form 477 broadband mapping data the FCC collects from broadband providers. With a vested interest in portraying a healthy market, ISPs have long submitted data that over-states broadband speed and availability. And, like a loyal servant to the industry it's supposed to hold accountable, the FCC (under both parties) rarely does much to actually verify that this data is accurate. This bad data then goes on to inform bad FCC policy.

Case in point: the GAO released a study last week noting that the FCC routinely overstates broadband availability in tribal areas, which in turn results in policy that doesn't do a good job fixing the problem. As the report (pdf) notes, the flimsy, unverified data the FCC collects is only compounded by odd FCC methodology decisions, like declaring an entire area "served" with broadband if just one home in a census tract has service:

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) collects data on broadband availability from providers, but these data do not accurately or completely capture broadband access on tribal lands. Specifically, FCC collects data on broadband availability; these data capture where providers may have broadband infrastructure. However, FCC considers broadband to be “available” for an entire census block if the provider could serve at least one location in the census block. This leads to overstatements of service for specific locations like tribal lands. FCC, tribal stakeholders, and providers have noted that this approach leads to overstatements of broadband availability. Because FCC uses these data to measure broadband access, it also overstates broadband access—the ability to obtain service—on tribal lands.

The bad data, and the FCC's unwillingness to do anything about it for the last twenty years, then has a cascading effect down the line, the GAO found:

Additionally, FCC does not collect information on several factors—such as affordability, quality, and denials of service—that FCC and tribal stakeholders stated can affect the extent to which Americans living on tribal lands can access broadband services. FCC provides broadband funding for unserved areas based on its broadband data. Overstatements of access limit FCC’s and tribal stakeholders’ abilities to target broadband funding to such areas. For example, some tribal officials stated that inaccurate data have affected their ability to plan their own broadband networks and obtain funding to address broadband gaps on their lands.

Of course this is certainly a problem for tribal areas, especially given the Pai FCC's decision to try and limit the broadband improvement subsidies that help expand broadband coverage to these areas (which is odd for a guy that prattles on endlessly about how fixing the digital divide is his top priority).

But this same problem is playing out everywhere in the country, as cable providers secure a growing monopoly over broadband thanks to telcos that refuse to upgrade aging DSL lines at any real scale.

Our $350 million broadband map does a fairly terrible job mapping broadband, but it does do a wonderful job perfectly illustrating the width and breadth of this problem. The map is supposed to "educate and inform" Americans as to broadband availability. But as we've pointed out repeatedly, the plan hallucinates both speeds and ISP availability, and fails to include any data at all on pricing (at ISP request). You can try it out yourself here, perhaps noting that most of the ISPs it claims are available at your address likely don't exist.

The end result is government regulators who look at one of the most broken markets in America through rose-colored glasses, resulting in our national broadband dysfunction never getting much better. And of course when somebody at the FCC does get the crazy idea of improving mapping and availability, ISP lobbyists quickly get to work killing those efforts. And, as you might suspect, the problem has only gotten worse under FCC boss Ajit Pai, who has taken steps to weaken the very definition of "competition" itself at incumbent ISP behest.

As such, keep in mind, when you see data highlighting how terrible U.S. broadband is, you can be fairly certain it's significantly worse than that. And the reason should be pretty obvious: if somebody were to accurately illustrate the monopoly Comcast, Charter, Verizon, and AT&T enjoy (and the impact this has on everything from pricing to net neutrality), somebody might just get the crazy idea to embrace policies that actually do something about it.

Filed Under: broadband, broadband map, competition, fcc, gao

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2018 @ 1:51pm

    Re: Re: By the way, Breitbart has exposed typical GAO worker:

    That's the stark choice? Either users with wheelbarrows full of worthless currency or users with nothing and executives with wheelbarrows full of currency?

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Show Now: Takedown
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.