Study: U.S. Broadband Gaps Three Times Worse Than Government Claims

Independent researchers say 42 million Americans lack access to broadband, nearly three times higher than flawed FCC estimates.
May 11, 2021, 2:21pm
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According to the FCC’s most recent broadband availability data, 14.5 million Americans lack access to broadband, down from 21.3 million one year earlier. But a new report by broadband tracking firm BroadbandNow claims the actual number of Americans without broadband remains stuck around 42 million, or roughly three times higher than the U.S. government claims.

The firm manually checked broadband availability for 58,883 U.S. addresses at 11 different internet service providers (ISPs) across 48 states. They then compared this data with the Form 477 data ISPs provide the FCC, and found industry and the FCC routinely over reported broadband availability all across the country.

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“There is a widely acknowledged flaw with Form 477 reporting,” the study noted. “If an ISP offers service to at least one household in a census block, then the FCC counts the entire census block as covered by that provider.” In many rural areas, a census block can encompass hundreds of square miles.

The study found that the government routinely overstated broadband availability regardless of the technology used, be it fiber, DSL, or cable broadband. But the study found that the availability of fixed wireless broadband by mobile carriers was routinely the most overstated. 

It only takes a few minutes spent with the FCC’s $350 million broadband availability map to notice something is amiss. The map dramatically overstates speeds, overall availability, and the total number of competitors in any given market—while also omitting a key metric at the behest of the broadband industry: broadband prices. 

In addition to the 42 million without access, 83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly, a tally experts say is also undercounted by the FCC. This lack of competition results in American consumers paying some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world, a problem that tends to hit low-income and marginalized communities the hardest

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Independent researchers say the lack of reliable broadband availability and competition data results in billions in wasted taxpayer subsidies. The false progress portrayed by the data is also used by the telecom industry and loyal politicians to justify the elimination of key consumer protections ranging from net neutrality to broadband privacy rules.  

BroadbandNow isn’t the only firm that has criticized the FCC’s broadband data. Microsoft has also repeatedly criticized FCC data as based more on fantasy than reality. The Verge this week released its own broadband map, using Microsoft data to showcase the dramatic disparity between reality and official government estimates. 

“In Lincoln County, Washington, an area west of Spokane with a population just a hair over 10,000, the FCC lists 100 percent broadband availability,” they wrote. “But according to Microsoft’s data, only 5 percent of households are actually connecting at broadband speeds.”

Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow, told Motherboard there’s no excuse for the government’s prolonged failure to accurately measure U.S. broadband gaps.

“The FCC ebbs and flows along election cycles when it comes to policy movement, much like the rest of the government,” Cooper said. “Still, it seems absurd to me that we’ve had essentially no movement on this issue in over a decade.”

Cooper noted there has been some belated recent progress, however. He pointed to the creation of a new “Broadband Data Task Force” by acting FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel last February. That committee will review the FCC’s existing processes, and “make recommendations toward overhauling the 477 data collection & mapping practices,” he said. 

Last year Congress also passed the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, which required that the FCC dramatically retool its broadband mapping systems, and conduct routine audits of ISP claims using crowdsourced, third-party data.

But these changes may take years to implement and there’s no guarantee the FCC will implement them successfully—something of little comfort to the millions of Americans stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide during the pandemic.