Broadband Now finds that FCC under reports unserved population in MN by half

CityLab reports on a new report from Broadband Now that found that the FCC may have underestimated the number of Americans unserved by broadband…

The FCC’s latest deployment report, released in May, calculates that 93.7 percent of the American population have broadband access in their area, leaving only 21.3 million Americans without high-speed internet. But when researchers at Broadband Now crunched their own numbers, their analysis suggest the actual number of Americans without broadband access is 42 million—double FCC’s figure. (And that doesn’t account for people who can’t live in areas with broadband infrastructure, but can’t afford it.)

“Frankly, I was surprised about how big the gap was when I got the data back. I’d assumed it was smaller,” says Busby. “It really sheds the light on the need to have better reporting.”

To get its estimate, the Broadband Now team manually ran 11,663 randomly selected addresses through the “check availability” tool of nine large internet service providers that claim to serve those areas. All in all, the team analyzed 20,000 provider-address combinations. A fifth of them indicated that no service was available, suggesting to the researchers that companies may be overstating their availability by 20%, Busby says. The results also show that 13% of the addresses served by multiple providers didn’t actually have available service through any of them. They then applied these rates across the country to get their final estimate of 42 million people without broadband.

The disparity between their estimate and the FCC’s largely comes from the agency’s reliance on Form 477 reports, in which internet providers self-report the locations they serve. Providers can claim to serve the population of an entire census block if service is provided to just one household in that block. After the release of FCC’s May report, the agency’s Democratic commissioners dismissed the report, berating their colleagues for “blindly accepting incorrect data” and using the numbers to “clap its hands and pronounce our broadband job done.”

Going directly to the Broadband Now report, here’s what they found for Minnesota:

  • MN Population: 5.58 million
  • FCC estimate of unserved: 290,000
  • Broadand Now (updated) estimates of unserved: 580,000

That would indicate that there are twice as many unserved people than originally reported. How does that happen? The report outlines one expected reason:

However, there is a widely acknowledged flaw with Form 477 reporting: if an ISP offers service to at least one household in a census block, then the FCC counts the entire census block as covered by that provider. BroadbandNow Research examined the magnitude of this flaw by manually checking internet availability using FCC data as the source of truth for randomly selected addresses.

Part of the answer is better mapping and engagement from the field would be helpful. This afternoon I hope to have more info on a new tool that helps make the maps more accurate.

This entry was posted in Digital Divide, MN, Research 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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