We won’t get better broadband until we get better maps

The Verge recently published a fairly damning account of how bad the FCC maps are and the impact that has on broadband access and affordability. Here’s a concise description of the problem…

As it currently stands, ISPs are required to deliver Form 477 data to the FCC indicating broadband availability and speed twice a year. But the FCC doesn’t audit the accuracy of this data, despite the fact that ISPs are heavily incentivized to overstate speed and availability to downplay industry failures. The FCC also refuses to make the pricing data provided by ISPs available to the public.

Worse, the FCC’s methodology declares an entire ZIP code as “served” with broadband if just one home in an entire census block has it. As a result, the government routinely declares countless markets connected and competitive when reality tells a very different story.

The FCC’s $350 million broadband map, for example, relies on the agency’s Form 477 data to help educate users on broadband availability. But users who plug their address into the map will quickly find that it hallucinates not only the number of broadband options available in their area, but the speeds any local ISPs can provide. A recent FCC update fixed none of these problems.


I’ve heard providers complain about the forms, which are apparently long and unwieldy. I’ve heard consumers complain that, as the article states, the access is over stated. Usually that conversation goes something like, “They say I have access. I don’t.”

The problem is that funding is often allocated based on these maps. And people use these maps to decide where to buy a home. And providers may use these maps to figure out new markets to pursue. (And most providers would prefer to go into an area where there isn’t an existing provider at least when looking at rural markets.)

They look at Rochester (MN) as an example…

According to the FCC’s data, Rochester is awash with broadband options. The agency insists that as many as a dozen broadband providers are available to most city residents. But according to the ILSR report, the reality is far different.

At least 4,000 of the 215,000 residents living within a 30-mile radius of the Rochester city center lack access to any broadband whatsoever. Another 42,000 people lack access to any fixed-line broadband options, driving them toward satellite broadband, which is considered the black sheep of the broadband sector due to cost, high latency, and daily or monthly usage restrictions.

Wireless is often promoted as a wonderful alternative to fixed-line broadband, but that’s not always the case. Wireless is often expensive, loaded with inconsistent restrictions, and users in rural markets often find themselves booted from the network for what’s often moderate usage. A monopoly over the fiber lines feeding cell towers only complicates the problem.

In Rochester, 19,000 consumers have the choice of only one local cable broadband provider — Charter’s Spectrum — and reality looks absolutely nothing like the picture ISPs and the FCC try to paint, Mitchell’s group found.

“Even where residents have a choice in broadband, anyone looking for speeds in excess of 40 Mbps will almost certainly have to subscribe to Charter Spectrum,” the report concludes.

In policy conversations, ISP lobbyists lean heavily on the FCC’s flawed data to falsely suggest that American broadband is dirt cheap and ultra competitive, despite real-world evidence to the contrary. ISPs also use this false reality to imply meaningful consumer protections aren’t necessary because the market is healthy (as we saw during the fight over net neutrality).

Some cities like Rochester have eyed either building their own broadband networks or striking public / private partnerships to fix the problem. But incumbent ISPs not only use the false FCC data to imply such efforts aren’t necessary, but they have lobbied (and, in some cases, written) protectionist laws in more than 20 states, prohibiting that from happening.

On the wider policy level, having accurate data is incredibly important as the government determines which areas are in need of broadband subsidies. That was a major point of contention at a recent FCC oversight hearing, as states vie for $4.5 billion in rural broadband deployment funds intended to shore up connectivity gaps.

The old adage says “that which gets measured gets done” unfortunately I think that extends to that which gets measured poorly gets done poorly. There’s just no way to gauge areas of need or areas of improvement when the maps are so flawed.

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

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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