As mentioned in yesterday’s blog, the FCC is required to annually report on the state of broadband to Congress. The prior FCC chaired by Ajit Pai issued the 2021 report on January 19, the last day of Pai’s leadership. Following is the primary finding of the report:
Since the Commission’s last Broadband Deployment Report, the number of Americans living in areas without access to at least 25/3 Mbps (the Commission’s current benchmark) has dropped from more than 18.1 million Americans at the end of 2018 to fewer than 14.5 million Americans at the end of 2019, a decrease of more than 20%. Moreover, more than three-quarters of those in newly served areas, nearly 3.7 million, are located in rural areas, bringing the number of rural Americans in areas served by at least 25/3 Mbps to nearly 83%. Since 2016, the number of Americans living in rural areas lacking access to 25/3 Mbps service has fallen more than 46%. As a result, the rural–urban divide is rapidly closing; the gap between the percentage of urban Americans and the percentage of rural Americans with access to 25/3 Mbps fixed broadband has been nearly halved, falling from 30 points at the end of 2016 to just 16 points at the end of 2019.
This includes the extraordinary statement that 83% of rural Americans have broadband speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps. If that was even close to being true, then Chairman Pai would deserve to make this the crowning achievement of his tenure at the FCC. Unfortunately, it’s not even remotely close to being true.
If the real number is less than 83%, then what is the right number? Unfortunately, nobody knows, because the FCC statistics are based upon the big lie that’s embedded in the poor FCC mapping and data collection. It’s extraordinary that the FCC would issue a report to Congress without a huge bold print caveat at the top of the first page saying, “The statistics in this report are all as reported to use by various ISPs. We have a large amount of anecdotal evidence that these numbers are overstated, and so the Congress should not base any policy decisions based upon these numbers.”
There is a huge amount of anecdotal evidence. For example, the State of Georgia created its own broadband map and estimated that the number of homes in Georgia that didn’t meet the 25/3 Mbps threshold was twice the number claimed in the FCC data. My firm works with rural counties all across the country and helps them perform speed tests, and we have never once seen a speed test from a rural DSL customer of CenturyLink or Frontier that was receiving 25/3 Mbps service. In fact, in most counties we’ve studied we don’t even find any DSL customers getting speeds of 10/1 Mbps. Yet the FCC mapping data shows a lot of coverage of these two speeds in rural areas.
To make matters worse, we don’t see many urban DSL customers with speeds of 25/3 Mbps or greater. DSL can only achieve such speeds by upgrading to newer versions of DSL and by bonding two pairs of copper into one DSL circuit. In towns that haven’t upgraded to these faster technologies – and there are a lot of them – nobody has speeds of 25/3 Mbps.
The FCC statement claims that 37% of rural homes got upgrades between 2016 and 2019 that pushed broadband speeds over 25/3 Mbps. There were some such upgrades, notably in areas where smaller telcos upgraded speeds by installing fiber. But those upgrades don’t come close to accounting for 37% of all rural homes. I am positive there were very few, if any rural homes in those years seeing this upgrade from CenturyLink, Frontier, AT&T, Verizon, or Windstream.
This means that the only way that the rural statistics could have gotten better was from ISPs claiming to bring fast speeds to rural areas. We’ve seen evidence of that. I know of rural counties where WISPs claim speeds of 100 Mbps download or faster where they have virtually no customers, and the few customers have speeds of only a few Mbps. It’s also likely that the big telcos claimed better coverage during this time period as they claimed upgrades due to CAF II (which largely are imaginary). Recall that just before the RDOF grant process that Frontier tried to claim that over 16,000 census blocks suddenly had broadband speeds that would have exempted those areas from getting grants.
Don’t bother printing this FCC report because it would be a waste of paper. The report is full of statistics from beginning to end – and practically none of the statistics are believable, and many are outright lies.