The Advertised Speed Problem

There has been a lot of hype over the last two years about fixing the FCC broadband maps. The FCC has proposed a method for defining broadband coverage by asking ISPs to draw polygons on maps around areas where the ISPs have customers or could connect a new customer soon after an order is placed. The FCC touts this as a way to make ISPs report more honestly. The current FCC has dragged their feet for several years to force implementation of new reporting, but the impetus is probably finally here to get this done.

But will polygons really fix the FCC maps? Some of the worst abusers of the FCC mapping process, at least in terms of reporting imaginary coverage areas are wireless ISPs. They often claim potential coverage to places that are both distant and with no line of sight from existing towers. But how is somebody sitting at the FCC going to judge the coverage claimed by a WISP? Short of forcing WISPs to file a wireless propagation study from each transmitter, how can anybody who is not local judge claims made by any ISP? I fully expect at least some WISPs to continue to overclaim coverage areas even with reporting by polygons.

But let’s assume for argument’s sake that the polygon process forces ISPs to be more honest about coverage areas. That alone ought to reclassify a whole lot of rural Census blocks as being unserved – where today claiming even one potential customer in a Census block means the FCC counts the whole block as having broadband capability.

Unfortunately, the polygons only fix what I think is the second most important problem with the current FCC data gathering. The problem that has caused the most harm to rural households is overstated broadband speed capabilities by ISPs. ISPs of all sorts routinely lie and exaggerate the speeds they are delivering. This happens everywhere, from cities to the most rural places in the country.

I speculate that the following are some of the major reasons that speeds are overstated:

  • There are ISPs who report the same speeds to the FCC that they report to customers. If an ISP tells the world on its web site and says on customer bills that it delivers speeds up to 25 Mbps, it’s not likely going to come clean on a public database like the FCC 477 and tell the truth that it’s only delivering speeds of a few Mbps.
  • I think there are ISPs that see the FCC reporting system as a form of advertising. The average citizen doesn’t know how to decipher the FCC broadband reporting, but there are half a dozen web sites that make money by telling people the broadband available in their zip code. These sites largely spit out to the public whatever is reported to the FCC (it’s hard to think how they would do anything else). I think that exaggerating speeds to the FCC likely translates into increased inquiries from potential customers.
  • It’s hard not to think that some of the big telcos exaggerate broadband speeds to keep out competition. Companies like Frontier and CenturyLink know that the FCC uses the 477 databases to establish broadband grants – so fudging the speeds can be an effective way to keep out grant money. There are huge geographic areas where these ISPs claim DSL speeds in the range of 25 Mbps where the actual speeds at customers are perhaps a few Mbps. We saw Frontier try to reclassify over 16,000 Census blocks as having speeds of 25 Mbps or faster just before the recent RDOF grants.

I’ve seen nothing in the proposed fixes to FCC mapping that is going to fix this problem. It’s impossible to think that ISPs that exaggerate broadband speeds are going to change the practice unless there are big consequences for not telling the truth. Unfortunately, the only tool the FCC has to correct speed reporting is imposing fines against ISPs. I honestly can’t see the FCC fining ISPs heavily enough to convince them to report honestly. But without enforcement, it’s highly unlikely that new FCC maps will be any better than the current ones – and the big telcos all know this.

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