After spending the better part of the last decade fighting against more accurate broadband mapping data, the broadband industry this week proclaimed the sector was now “leading the charge” for better data. But industry experts are skeptical of the industry’s sudden about face, and worry the effort’s real goal is decreased broadband data transparency.
For years critics have lamented the sorry state of US broadband maps and availability data. Large ISPs have an obvious interest in glossing over the industry’s competition and availability shortcomings, and critics routinely say the FCC has done a poor job independently verifying the broadband availability data ISPs provide the FCC.
Worse, the FCC declares a region “served” with broadband if just a single home in a census block has access (or could theoretically receive access). This results in data that routinely overestimates both where broadband is available and at what speeds, something made obvious if you spend some time with the FCC’s $350 million broadband availability map.
The shorter version: however terrible broadband competition and availability is, you can be fairly certain it’s significantly worse than that, something Microsoft noted just last week in an FCC filing.
Last week USTelecom, a lobbying organization representing AT&T, Verizon, and other ISPs, launched a PR campaign insisting the nation’s phone companies are now taking the lead on improving the country’s terrible broadband maps.
“USTelecom is leading the charge on a new, more precise approach to broadband reporting and mapping,” the organization wrote in an editorial at CNET. “We have proposed to Congress and regulatory agencies a method to create a public-private partnership to map America's broadband infrastructure so policymakers and providers can better target scarce funding to communities with limited or no service options.”
USTelecom’s somewhat vague plan states the industry will soon launch two new broadband mapping pilots in both Missouri and Virginia. There, member companies will use “multiple sources of address, building, and parcel data” to create “a broadband serviceable location fabric” to better identify where broadband is available, and where it isn’t.
The problem: USTelecom and the broadband industry have a very long history of lobbying to scuttle efforts to improve broadband mapping, raising more than a few eyebrows.
In 2017 USTelecom told the FCC in a filing it opposed efforts to map US broadband on the more accurate address level “because such a change would be unduly burdensome to providers and would not provide the Commission with better data on broadband deployment.” The organization also opposed efforts to make broadband subscriber data available to the public.
So what changed in the last few years?
As the FCC eyes where to deploy $4.5 billion in new rural broadband subsidies, more and more lawmakers are growing annoyed at the FCC and industry’s failure on this front. That includes Senator Jon Tester, who last year proclaimed that the FCC's broadband maps "stink" before adding that somebody should have their "ass kicked" for the failure.
Hoping to pre-empt other more diligent mapping improvement efforts, industry experts say the telecom industry has begun pushing hard for its own vision of what these improvements should look like. But those same experts are wary about big telecom dictating the process given its history and vested interest in hiding the industry’s obvious problems.
“I think we should be extremely skeptical of taking ideas from an industry that has chosen to avoid competing with cable companies as the arbiter of accurate mapping that will measure the state of competition and access,” Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Ernesto Falcon told Motherboard via email. “They have every interest in hiding the ball of how badly the United States is behind on fiber to the home deployment as they are generally seen as the companies that should be leading that effort.”
Consumer groups like Free Press have been fighting for better broadband mapping data for the better part of the last two decades. Organization research director Derek Turner told Motherboard that while the group supports broadband mapping reform, it’s concerned USTelecom’s interest is in making it harder for journalists and researchers to verify the data.
“We are concerned about the true motivations of this industry-led effort, and fear that the end result will be only marginal improvements in accuracy but a major loss in transparency and public access to the underlying data,” Turner said.
Turner told Motherboard the biggest problem with the FCC’s mapping process is its tendency to overstate deployment in sparse rural areas. He said the FCC could easily fix this by adopting more granular “road-segment reporting for rural census blocks,” or by having ISPs submit address-level data, something he says the industry has opposed for years.
"We are suspicious of the motivations of USTelecom, because their approach of using ISP-supplied address-level data is an idea its members have vigorously opposed since the FCC began collecting data"
When asked about the industry’s about face, USTelecom told Motherboard it opposed past mapping reform efforts at the FCC because they “were not necessarily helpful to moving the needle on a mapping solution.”
“Instead, USTelecom believes the better approach would be to develop a complete map of serviceable locations and then ask carriers to identify which of those locations they serve in a more granular fashion,” the organization said.
Still, consumer groups who’ve battled the industry for years remained skeptical about the industry’s real intentions.
“The voluntary, AT&T and Verizon-led USTelecom idea has the potential to improve the accuracy of the FCC’s data, but it appears this methodology will produce far less transparent data that cannot be systematically verified and utilized by researchers,” Turner said. “We are suspicious of the motivations of USTelecom, because their approach of using ISP-supplied address-level data is an idea its members have vigorously opposed since the FCC began collecting data.”
When pressed specifically as to whether the industry supports giving access to that data to journalists and researchers, USTelecom punted to Ajit Pai’s FCC, whose record on data transparency has not been particularly impressive in recent years.
“This is an industry-funded pilot program that the consortium will share first with the FCC when complete,” a USTelecom spokesperson said. “If the FCC adopts this new approach on a national basis, they will determine data availability.”
While the US desperately needs better broadband mapping and availability data, that data’s not going to be useful if it can’t be independently verified. And given the industry’s long history of denying the nation’s broadband competition and availability problems, experts say skepticism about the industry’s real intentions is warranted.