35 Years And $400 Million Later, The FCC Says It Finally Has Accurate Broadband Maps. Maybe.

35 Years And $400 Million Later, The FCC Says It Finally Has Accurate Broadband Maps. Maybe.


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We’ve noted for decades how, despite all the political lip service paid toward “bridging the digital divide,” the U.S. doesn’t actually have any idea where broadband is or isn’t available. The FCC’s past broadband maps, which cost $350 million to develop, have long been accused of all but hallucinating competitors, making up available speeds, and excluding a key metric of competitiveness: price.

You only need to spend a few minutes plugging your address into the FCC’s old map to notice how the agency comically overstates broadband competition and available speeds. After being mandated by Congress in 2020 by the Broadband DATA Act, the FCC struck a new, $44 million contract with a company named Costquest to develop a new map, just unveiled for the first time.

According to the FCC, this new map is the first step in a long process to accurately identify where broadband is (or isn’t), kind of important for people making broad policy decisions:

“Our pre-production draft maps are a first step in a long-term effort to continuously improve our data as consumers, providers and others share information with us,” FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “By painting a more accurate picture of where broadband is and is not, local, state, and federal partners can better work together to ensure no one is left on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

A first glimpse at the map shows many of the same problems we saw with the last map. It still doesn’t bother to mention price, a key metric in determining broadband accessibility. And it still claims service availability in a lot of locations that don’t have service. For example, I live a few miles from the center of Seattle under a Comcast monopoly, and the map still claims I can get Lumen (Centurylink) fiber:

Still, there’s several useful improvements this time around. For one, the FCC promises it will do a better job of holding ISPs accountable for false coverage claims. Two, the agency says it will stop using flawed methodology that declared an entire census block “served” with broadband if ISPs claimed that just one home in that census block could receive broadband.

That it took thirty years to get here tells you just how influential broadband industry lobbying has been. Telecom monopolies have spent decades lobbying against better maps and a more modern definition of broadband (currently 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up), knowing full well that a more accurate picture of competitiveness might give somebody in the federal government the crazy idea to try and fix it.

I’ve spent most of 2022 talking to states and city leaders trying to deliver better broadband, and most of them are very concerned about the challenge process the FCC is implementing to let third parties challenge industry claims.

Of particular concern is that many under-resourced, under-staffed, under-funded small ISPs, states, and municipalities won’t be able to afford to challenge industry claims, causing them to lose out on a once in a lifetime broadband funding opportunity made possible via the $50 billion in broadband subsidies created by COVID relief and infrastructure legislation:

“I think states that have their stuff together may be able to respond,” she said. “But states that don’t have strong broadband offices with a geographic information system (GIS) component will be hard-pressed to respond. I am hopeful the data will be more accurate from the ISPs, but the FCC left lots of wiggle room for them. Lots of it.”

Maine and New York, for example, have built their own elaborate broadband mapping and confirmation systems after decades of frustration with terrible FCC data. They have the staff, money, and resources to challenge false Comcast claims that they offer service in select areas.

But for every New York and Maine, there are countless states/cities/towns that will either lack the resources and expertise to file meaningful challenges, or lack the interest to stand up to monopolies. Which is to say it’s going to be an ongoing project to ensure the integrity of this data in the face of monopoly influence, and FCC history doesn’t leave a lot of room for optimism on that front.

The new maps will be used to prioritize who gets the billions in broadband funding coming down the road. And telecom monopolies are already busy exploiting state corruption, working overtime in a variety of ways all across the country to ensure the majority of that money goes to them, and not to absolutely any company, municipality, cooperative, and utility looking to challenge them.

The Biden FCC insists this is just the first step in a long process aimed at improving better data. And it’s a big improvement just to see the government admit that past data has been lacking. At the same time, it’s absolutely gobsmacking that 35 years and $400 million later and the federal government has only just started trying to use hard data to inform broadband policy decisions.

There’s a reason it took this long to get here, and it’s not simply because it was too difficult, expensive, or time consuming. It’s because U.S. telecom monopolies, and the armies of think tankers, consultants, lobbyists, and other proxy voices they employ, have waged a successful, multi-decade war to downplay monopoly power, gut federal oversight, and protect a very broken (but very profitable) status quo.

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November 21, 2022 at 06:27AM

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