A year ago, the state of Georgia undertook an effort to accurately map broadband availability in the state. Like many states, Georgia understood that the FCC’s broadband maps badly overstate broadband coverage. The goal of the state mapping effort was to define areas that don’t have good broadband to stimulate broadband investment where it’s needed most.
The results from the mapping effort are stunning. The State shows that over 507,000 homes and businesses, and 1 million people in the state don’t have access to 25/3 Mbps broadband. That is double the 252,000 homes identified by the FCC as not having access to 25/3 Mbps broadband.
I work with the FCC data every week and I’ve always known it is terrible. Our firm and many others look at the data in individual markets, but I’ve never found a way to grasp the extent of the problems with the FCC data on the global scale. It’s unconscionable for the FCC to overstate broadband coverage by 100%, as shown by the Georgia analysis.
The FCC data comes from ISPs that report broadband speeds and coverage to the agency. ISPs have different incentives to overstate coverage, and it’s obvious that many of them do so. The main ISP benefit of overstating broadband coverage is to dissuade competition. The FCC also uses the faulty data reported by ISPs to determine areas that are eligible for FCC broadband grants. For example, the FCC’s maps were used to determine areas that are covered by the $16.4 billion in grants that will be awarded in October.
The homes and businesses living in areas where the FCC broadband data is overstated should be livid about the issue. The Georgia mapping effort identified 255,000 homes and businesses that are in areas that should be considered for FCC grants but that weren’t included in the RDOF grants. Those grants are going to fund a lot of new fiber networks.
Georgia took a different approach to mapping. The state created the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative (GBDI) in 2018. The purpose of the initiative is to “coordinate and establish broadband programs to increase economic, education, and social opportunities for Georgia citizens and businesses.” The GBDI is an inter-agency effort supported by the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), Georgia Technology Authority (GTA), Department of Economic Development (DEcD), State Properties Commission (SPC), and Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).
The GBDI contacted ISPs to discuss broadband coverage. More importantly, the agency initiated speed tests to find out the real speeds being delivered across the state. While there are admittedly some issues with the accuracy of a given speed test when taken in mass a true picture of broadband speeds emerges.
The best thing the GBDI has done was to create a map that shows the side-by-side difference between the state’s map and the FCC mapping data. Differences pop out immediately. I wish every state would do this since it lets anybody in the state understand the broadband speed issue in their neighborhood. The differences between the two maps is amazing. There are entire counties that the FCC largely believes has access to 25/3 or faster broadband that show only limited coverage on the state version of the map.
The GBDI website also lets people search their address and also see the details of the local Census block.
A lot of states undertaking mapping efforts and speed tests, and this might be the only way to strong-arm the FCC into fixing its mapping efforts. The FCC plans to implement a new mapping regime, but unfortunately, if the agency doesn’t punish ISPs for reporting false data, the new maps might not be any better than the old maps.