Everyone — including Democrat and Republican members of Congress — knows the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband maps inaccurately represent who has internet access and who doesn’t, especially in rural areas. For the last decade, both Democrat- and Republican-led commissions have relied on reported data from cable and telecom companies to determine who has internet access and at what speeds.
Rural consumers, local governments and consumer advocates have long argued these maps are inaccurate. At the FCC’s latest open commission meeting, the FCC acknowledged the inaccuracy of the maps and launched a new broadband mapping effort, along with a proposal to establish a $20 billion broadband fund for unserved rural areas.
Accurate broadband maps would help under areas get internet access, and they could also be used to hold telecom companies T-Mobile and Sprint accountable for their pledge to build out 5G to cover 85 percent of rural Americans in three years and 99 percent of all Americans in six years once they complete their merger. (The combined company will face financial penalties if they don’t meet these conditions.)
According to the FCC’s Report and Order for the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, the FCC will require all internet service providers (ISPs) “to submit granular data maps of the areas where they have broadband-capable networks and make service available.”
Previously, ISPs submitted census block data, which means even if they only served one person within a census tract or county, they counted that entire tract or county has having internet access. This method of reporting broadband coverage contributed to the inaccuracy of broadband maps, which is why the FCC is changing the metric.
The order gives the Universal Service Administrative Company responsibility for collecting the broadband data for a new map, and calls for “public input” from consumers and local, tribal and state governments regarding whether they have internet access and at what speeds. (The baseline acceptable speed is 25 megabits per second — or Mbps — download speed and 5 Mbps upload speed, according to the FCC.)
In his statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said this “crowdsourcing” from consumers and local governments will help “ensure the reliability of these new maps.”
“And critically, we will no longer count everyone in a census block as served if just one person is served,” Pai said.
As Pai notes in his statement, granular data collection will be much more accurate because ISPs will pinpoint exactly who has internet access in each county and state. Hypothetically, these better broadband maps will incentivize ISPs and the FCC to more efficiently allocate funds and broadband deployment efforts to under- and unserved areas.
Pai has said repeatedly since he became FCC chairman in January 2017 that rural broadband is one of his top priorities, and no commission has acknowledged the inaccuracy of broadband maps until now, which could signal meaningful change under Pai’s leadership.
“Government agencies often struggle with regulatory inertia,” commissioner Brendan Carr said in his statement. “Once they adopt a process and everyone gets used to it, things tend to stay that way. They argue about ornaments on a Christmas tree still standing in May. They debate whether to add a new fender to the Pinto. Rarely does an agency commit to a fundamental rethink of the process.”
Some consumer advocates are skeptical the FCC’s efforts will result in more accurate broadband maps.
Sascha Meinrath, the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications for Pennsylvania State University, worries ISPs still won’t be held accountable if they provide inaccurate data to the new FCC map. The only difference in the FCC’s new approach to broadband mapping is the metric.
“There’s no mechanism for meaningful accountability,” he told InsideSources. “You get to self-report data. There’s a huge incentive to over-report that data, and there’s no meaningful detriment for doing so. ISPs are never going to provide accurate and precise information if they are incentivized to do otherwise. It doesn’t matter how you collect that inaccurate or imprecise information, it’s still going to be bad data.”
Democrat commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel applauded Pai’s initiative to remake the broadband maps, but also highlighted Meinrath’s concerns over accountability and worried the USAC will not be prepared for this “mammoth undertaking” because it has never before collected broadband data on such a large scale.
“Right now there is bipartisan legislation with support from our authorizing committee in the United States Senate that specifically charges the FCC with this data collection and disallows the universal service fund for paying for this effort,” Rosenworcel said. “It will be an embarrassment if a few months hence we will have to rip this up and start all over.”
Meinrath recently collaborated with a team of researchers to develop their own broadband map of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and helped other states do the same to create a nationwide map they say is more accurate than the FCC’s.
“I have 250 million data points from just last year and I can’t get the FCC to do anything with it,” he said. “They don’t need any more crowdsourcing data, we have it in spades already.”
Phase 1 of the FCC’s $20 billion rural broadband proposal is to use the FCC’s existing broadband maps to fund broadband initiatives in unserved rural areas. Meinrath said it doesn’t make sense to use bad data to allocate funds.
But Pai disagreed, instead advocating for urgent deployment of broadband to areas the FCC already knows don’t have access.
“While some have suggested that we should not move forward on Phase I until the data needed for Phase II has been collected, I strongly oppose this idea,” Pai said in his statement. “Indeed, it makes about as much sense as deciding not to provide medicine to anyone suffering from an illness outbreak until everyone who is sick from that outbreak has been identified. There is simply no reason to delay action to provide broadband to Americans we know don’t have access to it.”
Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld thinks Pai’s rural broadband proposal is just more of the same and won’t have a meaningful impact.
“Any real contribution to funding broadband to unserved or underserved Americans deserves applause,” Feld said. “But this new proposal deserves, at best, a Nancy Pelosi applause rather than the standing ovation Chairman Pai believes he deserves. It is a good thing for Chairman Pai to propose essentially extending the Obama-era ‘Connect America Fund’ under a new name. But whether we call it the Connect America Fund, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, or some other happy name, we need to recognize that this program won’t be enough to provide all Americans the real broadband they both need and deserve.”
The FCC sees its proposals as a work in progress and opened up them to public comment, acknowledging that the proposals are just the start of a massive overhaul to better ensure all Americans have internet access.
“No one should be misled about the amount of work to be done: There remains a long road ahead involving many years to implement the Commission’s new mapping framework,” commissioner Michael O’Reilly said in a statement.