How correct are the FCC maps? And why does it matter?

The New Food Economy has an article out on broadband access. It is interesting to see that broadband is an issue in a trade publication that doesn’t relate to telecom or cable. It does because as they say – everyone needs broadband. They are finding that the maps that track access, the maps that determine who gets federal funding are not aligning with other maps…

The United States government recognizes that the need is dire. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the federal agency primarily charged with expanding internet coverage, has committed over $9 billion to getting rural America online. In February, it released a national broadband map, purporting to show which parts of the country had access to fixed, or non-mobile, high-speed internet. The goal of the map is to inform policies and target subsidies as the government extends broadband to over 11.5 million American who still lack access.

A closer look, however, suggests that the map is based on misleading data. A New Food Economy analysis of internet speed tests in some rural counties shows connections well below what FCC is claiming, which means the number of Americans without broadband could actually be much higher than reported.

According to FCC, Iowa is the only Midwestern state with virtually complete access to high-speed internet. Every county is covered by download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mpbs), which the agency defines as “baseline” broadband. But another set of data tells a different story: Internet users in Iowa experience that speed only 22 percent of the time. That’s according to nearly half a million speed tests run on a diagnostic tool operated by the Open Technology Institute, a research arm of the New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank. Data from these tests, which were run last year, mostly as Google searches, are publicly available on the institute’s website and were updated at the request of The New Food Economy.

They look at why the maps are different…

Why do speed tests conflict so dramatically with what’s on FCC’s map? Because the broadband map, which the Commission calls a “key source” of information for consumers and policymakers, doesn’t include on-the-ground measurements in the first place. The map is based on data taken from Form 477, a filing that internet providers submit to FCC twice annually. The data are the agency’s main source of information on broadband availability, and the backbone of its funding decisions.

Form 477 data have surprising limitations. Providers are not required to include information in the filing about actual on-the-ground internet speeds, which are confidential and considered a trade secret. Instead, when providers submit data, they include lists of census blocks where they “can or do” offer service to at least one location, along with the maximum speeds they advertise there, whether that’s what residents have or not. Nationwide, around 28 people live in a census block, on average. In Iowa, a rural state, the density is closer to 15.

For these reasons, it’s hard to know how many Americans covered in the federal broadband map actually have the internet their providers say they do.

 

And there are issues with the level of detail of the maps…

Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that FCC doesn’t collect granular data about deployment. “For a long time, the way that the FCC collected data about broadband was, as we found, if there is one subscriber in a census block, we presumed that it was available throughout the block,” Rosenworcel told a House subcommittee in 2017. “I think we all know that that is not a fair assumption anymore, and we’re leaving too many households behind.

And why it matters…

And faulty data can have real-life consequences. When census blocks are reported to have access to 10 Mbps downloads, which was the broadband standard in 2014, other internet service providers are disqualified from receiving FCC funds to expand service there. In other words, the government decides the area is connected enough not to require additional funds for expansion.

This entry was posted in FCC, Policy, Rural by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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