Microsoft Says the FCC 'Overstates' Broadband Availability in the US

You can’t fix a problem you don’t understand, and America has no idea just how bad its broadband coverage gaps are.

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Mar 20 2019, 12:38pm

Generally speaking, you can’t fix a problem you don’t fully understand. That’s particularly true of US broadband, where the government’s efforts to map the scope of the nation’s broadband coverage gaps have long been ridiculed as an inaccurate mess.

Microsoft this week was the latest to highlight the US government’s terrible broadband mapping in a filing with the FCC, first spotted by journalist Wendy Davis. In it, Microsoft accuses the FCC of over-stating actual broadband availability and urges the agency to do better.

“The Commission’s broadband availability data, which underpins FCC Form 477 and the Commission’s annual Section 706 report, appears to overstate the extent to which broadband is actually available throughout the nation,” Microsoft said in the filing.

“For example, in some areas the Commission’s broadband availability data suggests that ISPs have reported significant broadband availability (25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up) while Microsoft’s usage data indicates that only a small percentage of consumers actually access the Internet at broadband speeds in those areas,” Microsoft said.

Similar criticism has long plagued the agency. The FCC’s broadband data is received via the form 477 data collected from ISPs. But ISPs have a vested interest in over-stating broadband availability to obscure the sector’s competition problems, and the FCC historically hasn’t worked very hard to independently verify whether this data is truly accurate.

The FCC’s methodology has long been criticized as well. As it currently stands, the agency declares an entire ZIP code as “served” with broadband if just one home in an entire census block has it.

That’s perfectly personified by the FCC’s $350 million broadband availability map, which users routinely discover not only hallucinates both ISP availability and speeds, but fails to even mention US consumers’ biggest broadband pet peeve: price.

In other words we’ve spent decades looking at America’s broadband problem through rose-colored glasses, and however bad we think US broadband issues are (and they’re clearly terrible), the actual problem is decidedly worse. How much worse is the billion dollar question.

In its filing, Microsoft “suggested that the Commission’s ongoing effort to more accurately measure broadband could be improved by drawing on the FCC’s subscription data, along with other broadband data sets from third-parties such as Microsoft, to complement survey data submitted under the current rules.”

However, efforts to improve broadband data mapping have been routinely shot down by the telecom industry. After all, highlighting the real scope of the broadband sector’s competition and availability problems might just motivate somebody to actually do something about it.

Harold Feld, lawyer and Senior VP for consumer group Public Knowledge, told Motherboard that tech companies routinely push for better broadband and better broadband mapping, as they have a vested interest in reaching more Americans with products, ads, and services.

“Tech companies have generally pushed for accurate broadband maps and digital divide solutions generally,” Feld said. “This is why they supported community broadband. Rural digital divide is leaving buckets of money on the table for tech companies...who want to get their business software tied into everything from precision farming to warehouse inventory.”

But Microsoft has an additional horse in this particular race. Arm in arm with consumer groups, the company has long been pushing a technology known as white space broadband, which would utilize the unlicensed spectrum freed by the migration to digital television to create an entirely new wireless broadband alternative well-suited for rural and underserved areas.

Microsoft has spent several years testing the technology in locations ranging from Cambridge, England to remote colleges in Ghana. In 2017 Microsoft announced an ambitious plan to bring the technology to more than 2 million rural Americans across a dozen states by July 2022.

“We all need to move faster,” Microsoft said at the time. “It took 50 years to electrify the nation. The millions of Americans waiting for broadband don’t have the luxury of time.”

But the technology’s arrival has been slowed by a number of reasons, most notably being concerns about potential interference with existing technologies (much of which engineers say can be mitigated), and opposition from entrenched broadband ISPs and broadcasters that aren’t keen on additional competition.

Feld said that despite white space broadband being an American invention, other countries are starting to leapfrog the States in implementation. That’s largely thanks to the Ajit Pai FCC, which has deprioritized the technology’s importance, despite repeated claims that closing the digital divide is a top priority for the agency.

Republicans and Democrats alike have pressed the Pai FCC to do more, but the agency has lagged in both policy support—and in terms of “repacking” the television band—which involves re-assigning television stations to new channels and utilizing the freed spectrum for broadband.

“The FCC has quietly killed it by leaving critical questions unanswered, doing a really (almost deliberately sloppy) job on repack, and anything else Pai can do without getting his fingerprints on it,” Feld said. “Pai has always hated it, because his bestest buddies (the National Association of Broadcasters and AT&T) hated it.”

Instead, the Pai FCC has fixated almost exclusively on fifth-generation wireless. And while 5G upgrades should provide faster speeds, even Wall Street has acknowledged the technology has been aggressively overhyped, and many rural areas may remain disconnected as carriers understandably focus on more profitable, urban and suburban markets.

“We worry about idiocies like the ‘race to 5G,’ yet cripple a perfectly good technology we invented,” Feld said.