Yesterday I described a few reasons why the National Broadband Map does not accurately capture who has broadband. My experience tells me that in rural America there are many places that deploy a ‘broadband’ technology without achieving broadband speeds. So I think there are many places where the Map overstates the speeds that are actually available. But there are also places where the Map shows broadband coverage where there is none and today I’ll look at a real life example.
This are several consequences of overstating actual broadband speeds. First, the Map is used by the FCC and others to talk about the state of broadband in the country. The speech that Chairman Wheeler gave last week assumes that the Map is right. To the extent that the Map stretches the truth about broadband speeds and availability we are basing policies upon incorrect facts.
Another use of the Map is to define those specific areas that don’t have broadband for purposes of defining where federal and state broadband grants and Connect America funds can be used. As an example, the FCC’s current $100 million Experimental Grants are aimed at areas that are either unserved (meaning that 90% of the households don’t have access to broadband) or underserved (meaning that at least 50% of the households there don’t have access to broadband.
Let’s look at a real life example of how the National Broadband Map doesn’t compare well to the real world. Below I am going to give you a link to some photographs, but before I do I want to explain what the pictures show. These pictures came to me from my good friends Melvin and Madonna Yawakie from TICOM. They show some CenturyLink telephone gear on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. This area was formerly served by Qwest, and before that US West and before that the old Ma Bell version of AT&T.
There are a few interesting things to note in these pictures. First, they show that the customers in this area are served using an old technology called ALC carrier. I was very surprised to see this equipment still working because it is over forty years old, which is a remarkable age for field installed electronics of any kind. I guess it shows that Ma Bell built things to last. This carrier was installed in a lot of rural areas in the 70’s as part to an FCC initiative to get people off party lines. The technology works using ISDN to put two to four phone signals over one strand of copper. The ALC carrier gives each customer on a party-line their own phone number and a private connection while the customers continue to share one strand of copper. The other thing to notice in the pictures is that some of the copper lines are strung over fencing instead of being on poles. Locals say that the wires have been that way for a long time.
What these pictures show is an area that has no broadband. There is no wireless ISP and no cable company. The only broadband option is DSL, and DSL cannot operate on lines that use ALC carrier. CenturyLink (and their predecessor Qwest) has told the tribe multiple times since 2009 that they have no intentions of upgrading the copper in the area or of bringing them broadband.
There are plenty of rural places in the US that have no broadband, so there is no surprise that this area does not have it. And it is no surprise that the areas without broadband are served by ancient technologies and by copper in poor working condition. What is surprising is that the National Broadband Map shows the tribal areas as largely having broadband available. That means that the tribal areas are not eligible for the FCC Experimental Grants, not will they be eligible for the Connect America Funds that are going to be available in the next few years to bring broadband to areas like this. The tribe is willing to build fiber in the area, but they need the help of these federal funds that are intended for exactly this kind of situation.
Unfortunately there are examples like this all over rural America. I have clients all over the US who say that the National Broadband Map is wrong in their area. What is most bothersome to me is that there is no easy way to fix the Map. The FCC has said that they will not award a grant to any area where there is any contention about the designation of the broadband in the area as defined by the Map. This means that a telco or WISP can refuse to correct errors in the Map and thus stave off competition from those who are willing to invest in broadband in areas that need it badly.
What is needed is some streamlined way for people to correct the National Broadband Map. The carriers seem unable (or unwilling) to define where their broadband coverage stops. And that is a bit ironic because in rural neighborhoods everybody knows where broadband is and isn’t. They will be able to tell you that “Nobody past Joe’s house can get DSL”. While there seem to be a lot of errors in the Map today the situation is only going to get worse since the FCC is expected to soon define broadband to be at least 10 Mbps download instead of the current paltry 4 Mbps. That change is going to declare overnight that many more millions of Americans don’t have broadband. But unfortunately the Map might say otherwise.