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Posted on Techdirt - 18 December 2020 @ 12:00pm

With Terrible Federal Broadband Data, States Are Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands

As a director of a state broadband program, one of my biggest challenges is data. I know lots of areas in my state have inadequate or no service. I get those emails every day. We have a public facing broadband map which is based on the data that the internet service providers (ISPs) provide to the FCC on what is known as the Form 477. The notorious problem with the 477 data is that gross inaccuracies are built into the reporting. ISPs report advertised speeds based on census blocks, where if one home in a census block is served, or could reasonably be served, the entire census block is considered served.

What this means, besides extreme frustration on the part of state broadband authorities and communities, is that we do not have the information needed to make decisions on where resources (money and time) should be spent. States have tried for years to get their ISPs to provide better information. I even changed the statute this year to require it. To no avail. So what should states like Maine do?

I firmly believe that it is time to pull the power from the ISPs and give it to the community. ISPs are businesses, and we have great partnerships with many of them in our state. But our interest as a State is to get people broadband. All people. And high-quality broadband that meet the use requirements that have only grown under COVID. Our mission and an ISP’s mission are sometimes at odds. And that is ok. But we must take the power of information on who is served and who is not (and at what quality service) back and put it in the hands of consumers. Or, in state government speak, taxpayers.

Luckily, others across the country have the same goal. This past year a number of states have contracted with GeoPartners to undertake a comprehensive speed testing strategy. The platform is easy for the end user to navigate and use. There are other companies doing similar work, and M-labs, a consortium of research, industry, and public-interest partners, also provides the largest collection of open Internet performance data on the planet.

In Maine, the state broadband office, ConnectMaine, is working closely with the Maine Broadband Coalition with a variety of community partners including Island Institute, Greater Portland Council of Governments, Maine Community Foundation, Maine West and others to roll out this strategy. A strong marketing strategy, and outreach to get as many people as possible to take the test is a critical factor in the success of this initiative. Maine launched the project through a community building project called the Maine West Boot Camp in mid October, and plans to expand it statewide by the end of the year.

So why are states doing this? Maine has had a community planning process in place for about four years. While we have seen some successes in expanding service to those areas, we have also discovered roadblocks. One of them is who in a community has service at what level. Prior to this citizen lead speed test initiative, that knowledge was all in the hands of the incumbent ISP.

Engaging communities in this process does a couple of really important things: it puts an important piece of the puzzle squarely in the hands of the consumer, removing a road block that can hang a community up for months waiting for answers from the ISP. It puts the power of determining the scope of the project firmly in the hands of the community. It can motivate other communities who are not connected to jump into and begin the process of improving their service.

Crowdsourced speed tests also provide state broadband offices with the information they need to justify funding, direct resources, and lay out a strategy to address the real problem in there state, not the problem defined by inaccurate FCC data.

Also, not to be understated: it gives states, in my case Maine, the power and the data to challenge the FCC data. Right now, the FCC is preparing to give out $16.4B based on data that everyone acknowledge (even the FCC) is accurate.

Yet they persist. And not for the first time. CAFII provided billions of dollars to rate of return carriers to bring 10/1 Mbps (a substandard speed when the started the program seven year ago) to more people. They just extended that program another year. Despite the evidence that some providers have not built out as required.

Many of Maine’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) areas are in what we call “unorganized territories”, which are exactly what the name implies: not towns and not that populated. In other words not one that is targeted. Areas like the RDOF-eligible area northeast of Baxter State Park with its 825 possible locations probably will likely not get served any other way (if in fact they even get served with this program.) But RDOF proposes to spend $10 million in subsidies to bring service to 825 possible locations while many, many unserved rural communities that the FCC deems as “served” with their mapping are not eligible for a dime. That is a waste of resources. And without good data, states are powerless to protest.

In response, we are going to go out and get our own data, and empower those communities to take up this gauntlet and take charge of their own future.

As executive director of ConnextMaine, Peggy Schaffer manages the Authority’s rulemaking efforts, investment decisions and policy recommendations. Peggy was the Small Business Advocate for the Secretary of State’s office, and served as the Co-chair of the Maine Broadband Coalition, a statewide group advocating for high speed broadband.

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