Is the FCC Really Solving the Digital Divide?

The FCC recently released the 2019 Broadband Deployment Report, with the subtitle: Digital Divide Narrowing Substantially. Chairman Pai is highlighting several facts that he says demonstrate that more households now have access to fast broadband. The report highlights rural fiber projects and other efforts that are closing the digital divide. The FCC concludes that broadband is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis – a determination they are required to make every year by Congressional mandate. If the FCC ever concludes that broadband is not being deployed fast enough, they are required by law to rectify the situation.

To give the FCC some credit, there is a substantial amount of rural fiber being constructed – mostly from the ACAM funds being provided to small telephone companies with some other fiber being deployed via rural broadband grants. Just to provide an example, two years ago Otter Tail County Minnesota had no fiber-to-the-premise. Since then the northern half of the county is seeing fiber deployed from several telephone companies. This kind of fiber expansion is great news to rural counties, but counties like Otter Tail are now wondering how to upgrade the rest of their county.

Unfortunately, this FCC has zero credibility on the issue. The 2018 Broadband Deployment Report reached the same conclusion, but it turns out that there was a huge reporting error in the data supporting that report where the ISP, Barrier Free, had erroneously reported that they had deployed fiber to 62 million residents in New York. Even after the FCC recently corrected for that huge error they still kept the original conclusion. This raises a question about what defines ‘reasonable and timely deployment of broadband’ if having fiber to 52 million fewer people doesn’t change the answer.

Anybody who works with rural broadband knows that the FCC databases are full of holes. The FCC statistics come from the data that ISPs report to the FCC each year about their broadband deployment. In many cases, ISPs exaggerate broadband speeds and report marketing speeds instead of actual speeds. The reporting system also contains a huge logical flaw in that if a census block has only one customer with fast broadband, the whole census block is assumed to have that speed.

I work with numerous rural counties where broadband is still largely non-existent outside of the county seat, and yet the FCC maps routinely show swaths of broadband availability in many rural counties where it doesn’t exist.

Researchers at Penn State recently looked at broadband coverage across rural Pennsylvania and found that the FCC maps grossly overstate the availability of broadband for huge parts of the state. Anybody who has followed the history of broadband in Pennsylvania already understands this. Years ago, Verizon reneged on a deal to introduce DSL everywhere – a promise made in exchange for becoming deregulated. Verizon ended up ignoring most of the rural parts of the state.

Microsoft has blown an even bigger hole in the FCC claims. Microsoft is in an interesting position in that customers in every corner of the country ask for online upgrades for Windows and Microsoft Office. Microsoft is able to measure the actual speed of customer download for tens of millions of upgrades every quarter. Microsoft reports that almost half of all downloads of their software is done at speeds that are slower than the FCC’s definition of broadband of 25/3 Mbps. Measuring a big download is the ultimate test of broadband speeds since ISPs often boost download speeds for the first minute or two to give the impression they have fast broadband (and to fool speed tests). Longer downloads show the real speeds. Admittedly some of Microsoft’s findings are due to households that subscribe to slower broadband to save money, but the Microsoft data still shows that a huge number of ISP connections underperform. The Microsoft figures are also understated since they don’t include the many millions of households that can’t download software since they have no access to home broadband.

The FCC is voting this week to undertake a new mapping program to better define real broadband speeds. I’m guessing that effort will take at least a few years, giving the FCC more time to hide behind bad data. Even with a new mapping process, the data is still going to have many problems if it’s self-reported by the ISPs. I’m sure any new mapping effort will be an improvement, but I don’t hold out any hopes that the FCC will interpret better data to mean that broadband deployment is lagging.

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