from the can't-fix-what-you-can't-measure dept
We’ve noted a few times how there’s an absolutely 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.
But there’s a tiny problem.
Despite a lot of pretense to the contrary, we still don’t actually know who does or doesn’t have broadband 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 year or two 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).
The FCC launched a new data collection portal in June, and gave ISPs until September 1 to provide updated broadband availability data. But smaller ISPs in particular say they’re struggling to meet the new requirements for data collection and transparency, and pretty clearly won’t be ready for launch.
One, smaller ISPs lack the resources of bigger ISPs to provide coverage data, putting them at risk of losing out on subsidies. Two, many smaller ISPs say the FCC’s system is crashing when they try to submit data. And three, the FCC data being provided to ISPs to correct, as part of the agency’s new mapping “fabric,” is effectively a hot mess:
“It’s pretty flawed,” said Bloomfield. “They’re looking at this stuff being like, ‘The data is so wrong that I don’t know what to do with it’.”
The FCC’s not in a great spot. They need to rush to get more accurate maps in place before $50+ billion in historic subsidies comes rolling down the hill. If the maps aren’t ready, a lot of the new money won’t flow. At the same time, giving these smaller ISPs six months to adapt to this new system and update mapping data doesn’t seem realistic.
Of course, giant ISPs like AT&T and Comcast have nearly unlimited resources to adapt to this system, meaning they’ll be more likely to get the lion’s share of funding. That’s not great, given these companies’ long history of taking billions in taxpayer money in exchange for networks they half deliver. These giants spent years trying to block many of these reforms in the first place.
These telecom giants have also lobbied to block the appointment of third Democratic FCC Commissioner Gigi Sohn to the agency, so there’s also the possibility that the agency will lack the votes to fully implement these new mapping improvements, further derailing things.
While this is going on, big monopoly ISPs are working overtime to try and ensure they hoover up the lion’s share of new subsidies, whether that’s by trying to block competitor grant applications at the NTIA, or literally lobbying corrupt state leaders to pass dumb laws effectively banning broadband grant money from going to competitors, cooperatives, or community broadband projects.
These and other issues are poised to make the FCC’s well-intentioned broadband mapping improvements a “train wreck,” according to Connexon executive Jonathan Chambers:
“They need a course correction because this is going to be a mess,” he said. “There’s a train wreck about to occur. I’m trying to raise a flag. This is fixable. If this is all about the allocation, then this is the wrong path. There will be a train wreck and it will delay funding, meaning it will delay service in rural America.”
On the plus side, this FCC has made it clear they’re interested in getting these improvements right, even if it’s abundantly clear the process is going to be a hot mess still heavily dictated by the industry’s biggest players. Previous incarnations of the agency would have simply dumped billions in new subsidies in the laps of giant monopolies, and proudly declared the mission accomplished.
There’s at least some indication that the idiotic and corrupt dynamic, directly responsible for the mediocrity that is U.S. broadband, is changing for the better, even if it’s going to be an ugly process.