How Many Households Have Broadband? – Part I

Polk County SignFCC Chairman Wheeler made a speech last week about the lack of broadband competition in the country. As part of the speech he released four bar charts showing the percentage of households that have competitive alternatives at the download speeds of 4 Mbps, 10 Mbps, 25 Mbps and 50 Mbps. His conclusion was that a large portions of the households in the US can only buy broadband from one or two service providers. I was glad to hear him talking about this.

But unfortunately there is a lot of inaccuracy in the underlying data that he used to come to this conclusion, particularly at the charts showing the slower speeds. The data that the FCC relies on for measuring broadband is known as the National Broadband Map. While the data gathered for that effort results in a Map, it’s really a database, by census block, that shows the number of providers and the fastest data speed they offer in a given area.

A census block is the smallest area of population summarized by the US Census. It is generally bounded by streets and roads and will contain from 200 – 700 homes (with the more populated blocks generally just in urban areas with high-rise housing). A typical rural census block is going to have 200 – 400 homes. The National Broadband Map gathers data from carriers that describe the broadband services they offer in each census block. As it turns out, self-reporting by carriers is a big problem when it comes to the accuracy of the Map. In tomorrow’s blog I will show a real life example of how this affects new deployment of rural broadband.

Broadband service providers don’t generally track their network by census blocks, so part of the problem is that census block don’t match the physical way  that broadband networks are deployed in a rural area. Anybody who lives in rural America understands how utilities work there. In every small town there is a very definite line where utilities like City water and cable TV stop. Those utilities get to the edge of the area where people live and they stop. That doesn’t match up well with Census blocks that tend to extend outward from many small towns to include rural areas. Rural census blocks are not going to conveniently stop where the utilities stop.

There are three widely used rural broadband technologies – cable modem, DSL and fixed wireless. Let’s look briefly at how each of these match with the broadband mapping effort. Cable is the easiest because every cable network has a discrete boundary. There is some customer at the end of every cable route and the next house down the road cannot get cable. So it is not too likely that the cable companies are claiming to serve census blocks where they have no customers.

DSL and fixed wireless are a lot trickier. Both of these technologies share the characteristic that the bandwidth available with the technology drops quickly with distance. For example, DSL can transmit over a few miles of copper from the last DSLAM in the network. The household right next to that DSLAM can get the full speed offered by the specific brand of DSL while the last house at the end of the DSL signal gets only a small fraction of the speed, often with speeds that are not really any better than dial-up.

The same thing happens with fixed wireless. A WISP will install a transmitter on a tower or tall structure and the customers close to that tower will get decent broadband, and those transmitters tend to be installed in small towns where people live. But wireless broadband speeds drop rapidly with distance from the transmitter and if you go more than a few miles from any tower there is barely any bandwidth.

Both telcos and WISPs input their coverage areas into the National Broadband Map database. And in doing so, it appears that they claim broadband anywhere where they can provide service of any kind. But for DSL and fixed wireless, that service-of-any-kind area is much larger than the area where they can deliver actual broadband. Remember that broadband is currently defined as the ability to deliver 4 Mbps download. Because of the nature of their technologies, a lot of the people who can buy something from them will get a product that is slower than 4 Mbps, and at the outer ends of their network speeds are far slower than that.

I don’t necessarily want to say that the carriers inputting into the system are lying, because in a lot of cases customers can call and order broadband and a technician will show up and install a DSL modem or a wireless antenna. But if that customer is too far away from the network hub, then the product that gets delivered to them is not broadband. It is something slower than the FCC definition of broadband, but it is probably better than dial-up. But customers with slow connections can’t use the Internet to watch Netflix or do a lot of the basic things that require actual broadband. And as each year goes by, and as more and more video is built into everything we do on the Internet there are more and more web sites and services that out of reach for such customers.

But unfortunately, there are also areas where it appears that the carriers have declared that they offer broadband where there isn’t any. If you were to draw something like a 5-mile circle around every rural DSLAM and every WISP transmitter you will see the sort of broadband coverage that many rural carriers are claiming. But the reality is that broadband can only be delivered for 2-3 miles, which means that the actual broadband coverage area is maybe only a fourth of what is shown on the Map. If you go door-to-door and talk to people outside of rural towns you will find a very different story than what is shown on the National Broadband Map. Unfortunately, the Chairman’s numbers are distorted by these weaknesses and distortions underlying the Map. There are a lot more rural Americans without broadband than are counted in the Map and rural America has far fewer broadband options than what the Chairman’s charts claim.

Tomorrow, a real life example.

2 thoughts on “How Many Households Have Broadband? – Part I

  1. This reminds me of the math and stats of baseball and how they get twisted by the types of players like Alex Rodriguez who from media reports allegedly juiced to enhance personal performance while competing against other players who don’t.

    When the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology and Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau released this report “A Report on Consumer Wireline Broadband Performance in the U.S.” they even had problems identifying what is the true speed of broadband performance.

    I think we can all agree that simply put: Broadband speed is the average rate at which information “packets” are delivered successfully over the communication channel. However, the FCC had to use 13 separate measurements that can be used to characterize various aspects of broadband performance to the consumer. This is funny we have only one definition of what Broadband speed is but when it comes out of a committee to make all of the participating ISPs happy and not look like liars in their marketing efforts we have 13 separate ways to measure it.

    In horse racing we have one definition of who is the fastest horse in a race and wins it. If we used these 13 separate ways to measure speed in horse racing to win compared to the FCC’s definition is thinking of the jockey as the “packet” delivered successfully past the winning post. What the outcomes would be is that there would never be a winner or a loser in any of the races.

    One of the problems we have is certain ISPs who want to act in the same manner as the juicing ball player et al. They use transient performance enhancements such as burst techniques. ISP who use burst techniques will deliver a far higher throughput for short periods, usually at the beginning of a download and when you measure this very short period it makes them look like super heroes offering very fast internet speeds.

    However, in reality ISPs who do the quick burst get caught in the act serving crappy overall low speeds when their subscribers are watching VOD. In another way the burst quick ISPs are more like the “Bucky Larson” character in the movie “Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star”.

    For the FCC to be able to constantly monitor and measure in real time the size and speed of every packet delivered by all of the US ISPs to every one of their subscribers who are paying for alleged “Broadband” speeds on the surface looks like it’s impossible. But it’s really not and could be handled by coding a collection tool for a small part of the ICMP and best of all this bit of code would not interfere or slow the packet in any way.

    This leaves just a few question: is the FCC ready for it and do they really want this information available as a way to protect the integrity of the public’s interest in internet services. And if the FCC did want this information in real time what’s worth to them.

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    • In my personal opinion they don’t want to know. It is a lot easier to pretend that lots of people have real broadband. If they were to measure this accurately then a whole lot more people would measure as not having broadband. I think there is no interest in fixing the map and there is no mechanism for an outsider to suggest corrections.

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