The FCC Finally Tackles New Mapping

Almost a year after having first approved the concept, the FCC recently started the process of developing new databases and maps. Last August the FCC approved the concept of having ISPs report broadband coverage by polygons, meaning that ISPs would draw lines around areas where they have active broadband customers or areas where ISPs can install a customer within a week of a request for service.

The FCC has been slow-rolling the process for the last year. They made announcements over a year ago that made rural America think that better maps are coming that will make it easier to correctly identify areas that have poor broadband. But last year’s big announcement only adopted the concept of better maps, and the recent vote took the first step towards implementing the concept.

Even now, it’s not clear that the FCC is ready to implement the new maps and the agency is still saying that it doesn’t have the money to change the ISP reporting process. This is hard to believe from an agency that is self-funded by fees and by spectrum auctions – the agency could have required the industry to pay for the new mapping at any time – but the FCC wants a specific allocation of funding from Congress. This feels like another delaying tactic.

There are good reasons for the FCC to not want better mapping. The FCC is required by law to take action to solve any big glaring difference between broadband availability in urban and rural areas. The agency has been doing everything possible over the last decade to not have to take such extraordinary steps.

Everybody involved in rural broadband knows that the current maps are dreadful. ISPs are free to claim broadband coverage and speeds in any manner they want, and from my experience, most rural counties have areas where broadband coverage or speeds are overstated. In many cases the overstatement of broadband is unbelievable. I recently was working with counties in Washington, New Mexico, and Minnesota where the FCC databases show 100% broadband coverage in rural areas when in real life there is almost zero broadband outside of towns.

This same mandate is the primary reason why the FCC doesn’t increase the definition of broadband, which has been set at 25/3 Mbps since 2015. Residents in well over half of the country, in cities and suburbs, have the option to buy broadband of 100 Mbps or faster. But the FCC sticks with the slower definition for rural America so that it doesn’t have to recognize that millions of rural homes, many in county seats in rural counties, don’t have broadband as good as in larger cities.

It is that same requirement to solve poor broadband that has driven the FCC to stick with mapping that FCC Commissioners all admit is inadequate. If the FCC fixes the maps, then many more millions of homes will become properly classified as not having broadband, and the FCC will be required to tackle the problem.

Unfortunately, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the new broadband mapping process. The biggest reason that today’s mapping doesn’t work is that ISPs are not required to tell the truth. Drawing polygons might decrease some of the areas where the ISPs claim coverage that doesn’t exist – but there is nothing in the new rules that force ISPs to report honest speeds. A rural county is still going to have overstated broadband coverage if ISPs continue to claim imaginary speeds – sometimes amazingly exaggerated. One of the counties I recently was working with has two wireless ISPs that claim countywide coverage of 100 Mbps broadband when it looks like the ISPs don’t operate in the county. The new mapping is not going to fix anything if an ISP can draw false polygons or report imaginary speeds. The new maps aren’t going to stop the exaggeration of rural DSL speeds by the big telcos.

Unfortunately, there are huge negative repercussions for areas where the ISPs lie about broadband coverage. The best example is the current RDOF auction where the FCC is awarding $16.4 billion in grants. None of the areas where ISPs have lied about broadband coverage are included in that grant program and won’t be included in future grants as long as ISPs keep lying about broadband coverage.

Lets not forget that ISPs have motivation for lying to the FCC about broadband coverage. Keeping grants our of rural areas shields the ISPs already operating there and protects rural ISPs that are selling 2 Mbps broadband for $70 per month. If these areas get grants the ISPs lose their customers. The penalties for overstating broadband speeds and coverage ought to be immense. In my mind, if an ISP deprives a rural county from getting broadband grants, then the ISP ought to be liable for the lost grant funding. If the FCC was to assess huge penalties for cheating the maps would be cleaned up overnight without having to switch to the polygons.

As usual, the FCC is pursuing the wrong solution and I suspect they know so. The big problem with the current maps is that ISPs lie about their coverage areas and about the speeds that are being delivered to customers. The FCC has the ability to require truthfulness and to fine ISPs that don’t follow its rules. The FCC could have implemented penalties for false reporting any time in the last decade. Implementing new mapping without implementing penalties for lying is just kicking the can down the road for a few more years so that the FCC won’t have to address the real rural broadband shortfalls in the country.

5 thoughts on “The FCC Finally Tackles New Mapping

  1. At the lake house in Eustace, TX we can’t even get a phone. No internet exists besides Hughes Satellite (no upload). You’d think we had gigabit if you look at the maps. Fishing is good, though.

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  2. Doug,

    I know that you are aware that a large portion of the area that is shown as served is actually done that way to comply with FCC Rules on reporting. If a carrier can/does serve a single location in the Census Block they are supposed to report the Census Block as served. My clients have a lot of cases where they serve a very small portion of a Census Block and remainder is not served. I just checked one and the portion served is 0.023% of the total square miles in the Census Block. Even after the client serves all of the locations in the Census Block and draws a polygon around the area served, there will still be over 90% of the Census Block Unserved since most of the Census Block is National Forest. In some cases, there may be a “Location” remaining in the National Forest that would take many miles of fiber to serve on a new route cut through the National Forest (which of course they would probably not allow) to serve a “Location” that might be a hunting cabin with no heat or power. Why would anyone want to bid on a Census Block Group with several of these type locations that they would have to build facilities to and they would never get an order for service. I have some where the client would have to build out of their territory through another state and through the territory of two other Telcos to get to one of these “Locations”. wouldn’t it make more sense to negotiate with a carrier that already has fiber in an area to extend to unserved locations. There will be some locations that will never be served by anything but satellite because the country cannot afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to serve a “Location” that is just not accessible.

    David

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    • David: There is certainly some of that issue where somebody serves one or two customers in a block and claims the whole block, and that will supposedly be fixed by the maps based on polygons. That is not the cause of most of the problems that I see. What won’t be fixed with new maps is when somebody serves a customer with 4 Mbps download but claims they can provide 100 Mbps broadband. That poisons the whole block for grant funding. And there are a number of WISPS who claim huge numbers of Census blocks where they have zero customers. If the cases I cite, we did extensive on the ground work to figure where ISPs were and were not serving, and the maps in many cases are pure fiction.

      In one county the FCC maps claim everybody in the county can get at least 25/3 broadband. We got over 25% of the people in the rural area to take a speed test and didn’t find a single customer over 25 Mbps, and almost no customers with downloads faster than 10 Mbps. In this case, the culprit was one of the infamous big telcos that overstated speeds plus several WISPs that did the same. Counties like that are getting screwed out of RDOF and other grant funding.

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      • Doug — You did not mention the provisions to allow for gathering crowdsourced data as a check on the ISPs. Will that not help somewhat?

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      • I probably sound cynical, but I’m betting that the FCC is going to do little more than pay lip service to this – they are doing this due to pressure from Congress. I find it highly unlikely, except in extreme cases, that the FCC will react to crowd-sourced information.

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