Despite a lot of pretense to the contrary, the U.S. government has never really had a solid understanding of where broadband is or isn’t available. Broadband maps from agencies like the FCC have long painted an inaccurate and rosy picture of service availability, obscuring the limited competition and high prices that plague U.S. telecom.
This week the agency says it took its first steps to actually fix the problem.
After creating a new broadband mapping task force last February, the FCC has released the first fruit of its labor: a new wireless coverage map it says is the most accurate assessment yet of wireless service availability, giving consumers a new way to verify often fanciful coverage claims by wireless marketing departments.
“For too long the FCC has not had truly accurate broadband maps,” interim FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel said of the launch. “But we're changing that. Starting right here and now.”
The map lets you take a granular look at both the voice and data coverage of the nation’s four biggest wireless carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and U.S. Cellular. The FCC is also providing access to the hard data underpinning the new mapping effort, voluntarily provided by carriers outside of the agency’s older Form 477 data collection process.
For now the map only tracks LTE (4G) wireless broadband coverage. As Motherboard has previously reported, telecom lobbyists had been pressuring the agency to exclude 5G coverage from any mapping improvements, clearly aware that accurate maps might clash with the industry’s 5G availability marketing.
Wireless carriers have spent the last two years professing that 5G will revolutionize the world, resulting in everything from miracle cancer cures to the smart cities of tomorrow. So far most of those promises haven’t materialized, including consistent 5G coverage.
The FCC still has a lot of work to do to fix the agency’s other broadband maps, including its $350 million fixed line broadband map (currently offline). That map, which tracks DSL, cable, satellite, and fiber broadband availability, has been repeatedly accused of overstating availability speeds, and competitors, while failing to track broadband prices.
FCC methodology was also a problem. For years the FCC dictated an area “served” with broadband if just one home in a census block was able to get broadband access. In 2020 Congress passed the DATA Act, requiring the FCC to use more granular and crowdsourced data to determine U.S. broadband availability.
The FCC says the updated methodologies and new, standardized criteria it’s using for this latest wireless map will soon wind their way toward the agency’s other broadband maps. Last April, the agency also asked consumers to submit broadband speed tests via a new FCC app.
For decades, the FCC used its inaccurate maps to dole out billions in subsidies to the nation’s biggest telecom providers and determine which areas need help. With unreliable underlying data, the subsidies often didn't fix the core problem: namely the up to 42 million Americans without broadband, or the 83 million Americans currently living under a broadband monopoly.
Unreliable maps and sloppy subsidization recently contributed to companies like Elon Musk’s Starlink gaming the FCC system to grab hundreds of millions in subsidies to deliver satellite broadband to airport parking lots and traffic medians. The FCC says it’s also trying to reform its subsidy award process, and will more seriously challenge data provided by ISPs.
“We will also establish systems and processes to validate and supplement provider-submitted data,” Rosenworcel said. “One such effort will be a process through which consumers, state, local, and Tribal governmental entities, and other stakeholders may submit data to challenge the accuracy of the FCC’s coverage maps.”
While the FCC’s new map is a needed improvement, it’s really only the first step of a process that will take years to fully materialize. You can’t fix something you can’t measure, and for decades the FCC was blind to the real scope of America’s broadband dysfunction.