American ISPs Are Better Than Ever, FCC Proclaims in Study Based on Flawed Data

Ajit Pai's FCC says more Americans than ever have access to fast internet connections, but critics say the study is "fundamentally at odds with reality."

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May 30 2019, 2:24pm

Image: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

By law, the FCC is required by Congress to release periodic reports detailing whether broadband is being deployed to Americans in a “reasonable and timely basis.” If the answer is no, the agency is supposed to do something about the problem.

But under Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC has routinely insisted that there’s few real problems that need fixing. The Pai FCC’s latest broadband deployment report is no exception. For the second year in a row it's declared that American broadband deployment is healthier than ever.

According to the FCC’s latest study, the number of Americans lacking access to a broadband (defined by the FCC as 25 Mbps downstream, 3 Mbps upstream) has dropped from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 21.3 million Americans at the end of 2017. The FCC said availability of 250 Mbps connections grew 36 percent in 2017.

“This report shows that our approach is working,” Pai said of the report before it was formally released to the public. “But we won’t rest until all Americans can have access to broadband and the 21st century opportunities it provides to communities everywhere.”

But Pai’s fellow FCC Commissioners said the report, which only tracks broadband improvements as of the end of 2017, paints an inaccurate picture of the industry. For example it fails to discuss how broadband pricing continues to skyrocket as consumers increasingly only have access to faster speeds from just one ISP, usually their regional cable provider.

“The rosy picture the report paints about the status of broadband deployment is fundamentally at odds with reality,” said Democratic FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks in a statement.

Starks pointed out how an earlier version of the report falsely overstated broadband availability by 62 million homes, something quietly corrected after criticism by consumer groups. He also took aim at the FCC’s faulty broadband maps, which have been repeatedly criticized by everyone from consumer groups to Microsoft for overstating service availability and speeds.

Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was equally critical of the report, noting the FCC shouldn’t be claiming victory when data repeatedly suggests the agency’s underlying broadband mapping data isn’t accurate.

“It is simply not credible for the FCC to clap its hands and pronounce our broadband job done—and yet that is exactly what it does in this report today,” Rosenworcel said. “By determining that under the law broadband deployment is reasonable and timely for all Americans, we not only fall short of our statutory responsibility, we show a cruel disregard for those who the digital age has left behind.”

Historically, the FCC hasn’t done a very good job verifying broadband deployment data collected from ISPs. The agency’s methodology also falsely declares that if just one person in a census block has access to broadband, then everyone in that block has broadband. Efforts to implement more granular FCC mapping have repeatedly been blocked by telecom industry lobbyists.

“We need to stop relying on data we know is wrong,” Rosenworcel said. “Putting aside the embarrassing fumble of the FCC blindly accepting incorrect data for the original version of this report, there are serious problems with its basic methodology. Time and again this agency has acknowledged the grave limitations of the data we collect to assess broadband deployment.”

Gigi Sohn, a lawyer for the previous FCC, told Motherboard in a statement that you can’t fix a problem you don’t really understand.

“The FCC's 2019 Broadband Deployment Report is hopelessly flawed and cannot be the basis for future policymaking,” Sohn said. “Nor does it validate Chairman Pai’s unsubstantiated claims that his policies have helped to close the digital divide.”

Much of the growth Pai takes credit for had nothing to do with his agency’s policies, Sohn said.

While the Pai FCC takes credit for the record 5.9 million fiber lines deployed in 2017, for example, at least half of that total was thanks to conditions attached to the 2015 AT&T DirecTV merger by the previous FCC. And an undetermined amount of broadband speed improvements were courtesy of community broadband deployments the Pai FCC has actively opposed.

The report fails to note how American telcos have increasingly refused to upgrade or repair their aging DSL lines, giving cable giants like Comcast a monopoly over faster speeds across countless markets nationwide. The end result of such limited competition is higher prices, spotty coverage, and some of the worst customer service of any industry in America.

Consumer groups have repeatedly warned that most of Pai’s policies, from eliminating net neutrality to eroding FCC authority over broadband providers, are likely to make these issues worse, not better. But because the FCC (and its $250 million broadband map) doesn’t share broadband pricing data with the public, the high cost of US broadband is often left out of the conversation entirely.

“The FCC should work to validate industry’s numbers through other methods like crowdsourcing and measurement from other sources,” Sohn said. “Only then will the FCC and other agencies have the information they need to engage in smart and effective policy making necessary to ensure that all Americans are connected.”

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