Despite pretense to the contrary, the U.S. government doesn’t really know who does—or doesn’t—have access to affordable broadband. Government broadband data is provided by ISPs with a vested interest in downplaying obvious sector shortcomings. And historically, the FCC hasn’t done a terrific job independently verifying the accuracy of this essential data.
As a result, U.S. leaders tend to view America’s uncompetitive broadband industry through rose-colored glasses. In the process experts say we’ve dramatically undercounted the number of Americans without broadband access, failed to fully catalog the impact of monopolization, and have thrown billions in taxpayer subsidies at companies without knowing if it's helping.
Fortunately, things are slowly starting to change.
After Congress spent the last year demanding the agency do more to address the problem, the FCC on Wednesday launched a new broadband data task force it says will implement “long-overdue improvements to the agency’s broadband data and mapping tools.”
“The Broadband Data Task Force will lead a cross-agency effort to collect detailed data and develop more precise maps about broadband availability,” Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said of the effort.
Under the current system, ISPs provide data on broadband availability via the FCC’s Form 477 process. But if you’ve spent any time with dodgy wireless carrier coverage maps, it’s clear that much of this data is more aspirational than real, and providers frequently overstate both fixed and wireless broadband coverage areas, sometimes dramatically.
In 2018, the Trump FCC was criticized for claiming that there had been a massive surge in broadband availability thanks to its decision to kill net neutrality. In reality, the surge in connections was due to a clerical error by a broadband provider named BarrierFree, which had over-estimated its broadband footprint by a matter of several million subscribers.
Broken FCC methodology has historically made the problem worse. For example the FCC has spent years declaring an entire census block “served” with broadband if ISPs claimed they could offer service to just one home in that census block. In reality, such blocks may have up to 3,000 residents, many without broadband access.
In a 2018 report, the General Accounting Office noted the FCC routinely overstates broadband availability, and that the agency’s bizarre methodology allowed ISPs to “report availability in blocks where they do not have any infrastructure connecting homes to their networks.’’
It only takes a few moments perusing the FCC’s $350 million broadband availability map to realize the scope of the problem. The map all but hallucinates broadband competitors—and speeds—and fails to catalog broadband prices whatsoever.
While the FCC formally states the number of Americans without access to any broadband to be around 21.3 million, broadband experts say the number’s closer to 42 million. Independent researchers also state that the FCC dramatically undercounts the 83 million US consumers that only have access to broadband through a single, monopolistic ISP.
The lion’s share of the task force’s job will be focused on implementing recommendations included in the DATA Act, a bill passed last year demanding the FCC take a more granular, crowdsourced approach to measuring broadband availability and speed. The Act also required that the FCC shore up its dodgy, census-blocked methodology for measuring access.
Consumer groups say the looming changes are desperately needed, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.
“This issue has been a thorn in the side of the Commission's work, and establishing a dedicated task force to address these mapping problems in a comprehensive fashion is a good step forward,” Dana Floberg, policy manager at consumer group Free Press told Motherboard.
“The accuracy of broadband maps will of course always be limited by the accuracy of the data submitted, and so we hope the Commission continues to step up its efforts to ensure that providers submit accurate and timely data, and that the agency works to improve its analysis of that data to correct its past mistakes, such as the BarrierFree case,” she added.
But Floberg warned that if the FCC plans on giving Americans better information on the state of U.S. broadband, it needs to also start transparently tracking and sharing broadband prices.
“Improving broadband mapping will allow for better targeting of federal funds for deployment, but the Commission must also collect pricing data to craft a more complete picture of the U.S. broadband market, and the communities it leaves stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide,” Floberg said.
Incumbent ISPs have spent years lobbying against better broadband maps, and more recently lobbied the FCC to exempt fifth-generation (5G) wireless from any mapping improvements. These providers know full well that if the public and policymakers truly understood the scope of America’s broadband problems, somebody might just get the crazy idea to try and fix it.