We’ve noted for decades how, despite all the political lip service paid toward “bridging the digital divide” (and the billions in subsidies thrown at telecom giants to solve the problem), the U.S. never had any real idea where broadband is or isn’t available. You can probably imagine that’s a problem given the decades of policy proposals and billions of dollars thrown at the problem.
The FCC’s past broadband maps, which cost $350 million to develop, have long been accused of all but hallucinating competitors, making up available speeds, and excluding a key metric of competitiveness: price. The agency’s new maps, built for $44.9 million under a contract with CostQuest, are a noted improvement, but still have significant problems.
The FCC released its latest update to those maps last week. Early estimates from broadband analyst Mike Conlow make it clear there are improvements, and note that the agency is now tracking a possible 114,537,044 Broadband Serviceable Locations (BSLs), 7.6% of which (8.67 million) still lack access to any broadband whatsoever in the year 2023.
Other analysts, like Doug Dawson, note that many of the same problems that plagued earlier incarnations of the maps remain. Most notably, the FCC is still being too trusting when it comes to letting broadband providers report their “marketed” speeds and coverage as reality:
There is one huge flaw in the FCC mapping system that has carried over from the previous FCC mapping regime – ISPs self-report the speeds they can deliver. Per the FCC mapping rules, ISPs can claim broadband marketing speeds rather than some approximation of actual speeds….
In today’s world, I’m always instantly suspicious of any ISP that claims exactly 100/20 Mbps broadband since that conveniently classifies those locations as served. An ISP making that claim is telling the FCC that everybody in their service footprint already has adequate broadband and that there is no need to give grant money to anybody to compete with them.
The FCC is heavily relying on states to challenge inaccurate data. But states vary widely in their competency to map their own broadband access. Many lack the funding to competently challenge inaccurate data. And as we’ve noted previously, big telecom monopolies are always on the prowl looking to undermine any data or policies that might dare suggest they don’t face much competition.
So states like California or Washington, which once in a while find the courage to stand up to giant telecom monopolies and embrace policies that drive new competition to market, will likely see much different outcomes from states like West Virginia, where telecom giants like Frontier dictate nearly all policy to an almost comical degree.
Broadband mapping isn’t going to nab headlines, but it matters. Between COVID relief (ARPA) and infrastructure bill (IIJA) money, we’re in the process of throwing more than $60 billion at the states in a bid to shore up broadband access. And if we don’t have an accurate idea of coverage, or big companies like Comcast and Charter too heavily dictate funding flow, a lot of this money could be wasted.
That said, I’m talking to a new town or city pretty much every week in my reporting. And I’ve lost track of the areas where a cooperative, municipality, city-owned utility, or public-private partnership is preparing to deploy amazing new fiber networks at affordable speeds for the first time in U.S. history. This money is genuinely going to make a huge difference for millions of frustrated consumers.
At the same time, I know the FCC and telecom monopolies well enough to know that a huge swath of this money is going to be misdirected by predatory shitweasels away from areas and competitors that desperately need it, and instead into the pockets of giant conglomerates with a 30 year history of fraud. Companies that pocket subsidies, then deliver half-completed networks or nothing at all.
And I know the FCC, which has a long history of failing to competently hold telecom giants accountable for much of anything, won’t suddenly and mysteriously change its stripes here. Especially when you see what happens when you try to appoint a popular reformer to the agency. I’d expect a lot of stories over the next few years highlighting both state and federal subsidy corruption and dysfunction. Especially in states where AT&T, Comcast, Charter, or Frontier effectively control the legislature.
One thing that annoys me: the FCC still isn’t really willing to talk much about broadband pricing or monopoly power during the mapping conversation, despite the fact that affordability remains the key obstacle for adoption. FCC leaders of both parties also have a hilarious phobia when it comes to even admitting that concentrated monopoly power is the primary reason U.S. broadband remains expensive, spotty, and slow for so many of you.
There’s some amazing potential here to change that dynamic. This is arguably the biggest one-time cash payout on broadband in U.S. history. I think there will inevitably be progress, but not the kind of progress we’d see if federal elected officials and regulators genuinely had ethics and a backbone.