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digital divide

The FCC’s New Broadband Map Paints an Irresponsibly Inaccurate Picture of American Broadband

At the core of the problem is, unsurprisingly, the influence of deep-pocketed telecom operators on lawmakers and regulators.

Karl Bode

Image: Shutterstock

How do you fix a problem when you’re not capable of admitting you have one?

That’s the problem that continues to plague the United States, where consumers not only pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for broadband, but enjoy some of the worst customer service imaginable. Efforts to actually fix this problem remain stuck in limbo, in part because we’re still not accurately tracking where broadband is available, or how much it costs.

Back in 2011 the Obama FCC announced the creation of a $300 million broadband map using the Form 477 data ISPs provide the agency. At the time the map was heralded as a novel way to highlight the coverage gaps and competitive shortcomings of what is pretty clearly a broken US telecom market.

But users quickly discovered that despite the project’s steep price tag and good intentions, the map itself was almost useless. Before the map was mothballed due to a lack of funding, it spent a few years hallucinating competitors out of whole cloth, over-stating both speed and availability, while failing utterly to mention service pricing whatsoever.

At the core of the problem is, unsurprisingly, the influence of deep-pocketed telecom operators on lawmakers and regulators. The data ISPs submit to the FCC is rarely independently verified by objective third parties, and because companies like Comcast don’t want to emphasize the obvious lack of competition, data they provide tends to be overly-optimistic.

As a result, the FCC has long used an ISP-approved, census-tract-based approach to measuring broadband. And the results are comical: according to current FCC logic, if a single home in a census tract has broadband, the entire neighborhood is declared served. This rose-colored glasses approach to data integrity has fueled policy for decades.

Fast forward to this week when the Ajit Pai run FCC announced they were relaunching a “new” version of the map as part of Pai’s (already arguably hollow) dedication to closing the digital divide. You can check out the updated map here.

“As it works to close the digital divide, the Federal Communications Commission has updated and modernized its National Broadband Map so the map can once again be a key source of broadband deployment information for consumers, policymakers, researchers, and others,” the FCC proclaimed in a statement.

“The new, cloud-based map will support more frequent data updates and display improvements at a far lower cost than the original mapping platform, which had not been updated in years,” it added.

The agency also took to Twitter to declare that the revamped map would provide “a robust tool for closing the digital divide.”

Except the FCC’s map actually does the exact opposite. Anybody interested in using the FCC’s map to identify broadband coverage gaps—would walk away believing the digital divide doesn’t actually exist.

While the “new” map has received a modest graphical overhaul, all of the problems inherited from its initial iteration remain. Users were quick to highlight on Twitter that the map still dramatically overstates available ISPs (often to a comical degree), inaccurately lists the speeds they can provide, and fails to mention service pricing whatsoever.

For example, at my home in Seattle (one of America’s purported technology leadership hubs) Comcast is the only real broadband option. Yet the FCC’s new broadband map tries to inform me that seven different ISPs are actually available.

One company (CenturyLink) is listed as two competitive choices for both fiber and DSL, despite neither being actually available. Another fixed-wireless option is also not actually available at my address. Three of the listed competitors are for satellite broadband, a service routinely plagued by high prices, low usage caps, and high latency (read: it’s not real broadband).

Even if many of these services were actually available to me, four of the seven don’t meet the FCC’s own definition of broadband: 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up. In short, the FCC’s map is utterly useless in helping users determine just what options are available.

And again, this is an intentional feature, not a bug.

ISPs have spent decades fighting against more accurate broadband mapping, worried that the public might just discover how solidly this industry has shafted them for the better part of a generation. And well-heeled regulators are eager to embrace this flawed data, especially if it helps them justify the blind-deregulatory policies routinely favored by industry.

Efforts to improve mapping accuracy by shifting from the overly-generous census-tract approach to address-based data has been routinely shot down by industry lobbyists. And ISPs consistently pressure the FCC to weaken the definition of broadband, since it’s easier to be an expert high jumper when the bar is set to ankle height.

More accurate data would not only reveal that the lion’s share of American broadband is painfully uncompetitive, but that it’s actually getting worse. Many US telcos are simply refusing to upgrade aging DSL lines, giving incumbent cable providers like Charter and Comcast a growing monopoly over huge swaths of America.

The end result of this dance of dysfunction isn’t just higher prices, but punitive usage caps, overage fees, substandard customer service, and a rotating crop of net neutrality and privacy violations. And with the recent death of net neutrality and consumer broadband privacy protections, you can expect it to get worse before it gets better.

But before we can fix the problem, we need lawmakers and regulators actually capable of admitting we have one. Both parties have a long, proud history of defending the rose-colored glasses approach to broadband data collection, terrified of upsetting some of the most powerful campaign contributors in America.

After all, if the public can easily see how uncompetitive, unavailable and expensive decent broadband is, somebody might just get the crazy idea to actually do something about it.