The FCC took its latest shot at reforming the notoriously inaccurate broadband maps in January. I put off writing a blog on this until now because I kept hoping that as I reread the new rules that I’d see something positive. But as I’ve reread the details of the proposed new mapping process, I see little improvement on the way. I’m not going to go through all of the details of the FCC order, just point out the proposed areas of the most impact.
The best change in reporting is to require ISPs to draw polygons around areas where customers either have service or where the ISP is willing to provide service within 10 days of a request. This will clean up two problems. It will draw lines around areas where cable company coverage stops in towns and create a clear border. Today, reporting by Census block often shows cable coverage extending far into the rural areas surrounding towns. Second, the consumer challenge process ought to eventually chop down over on rural WISPs and telcos that claim coverage where they can’t provide service.
The FCC totally blew the most important issue with poor mapping because it will continue to allow ISPs to report the fastest advertised broadband speed. This is the primary problem in rural areas today where the big telcos claim 25/3 Mbps advertised speeds and then deliver a 2 Mbps download speed. By not tackling the misrepresented speeds, the FCC really is wasting everybody’s time because this will produce a rural database that is no better than what we have today. Who cares what Frontier or CenturyLink advertise in rural America? We care about the poor speeds the telcos deliver.
The new rules include a two-tier challenge process, One form of challenge can come from governments or Tribes. The government challenge is complex in that anybody that wants to challenge must draw their own versions of the polygons in an area they are challenging. It will be difficult for governments to gather the huge volume of consumer data needed to make such a challenge. A government might gather a thousand speed tests in a rural county and still be unable to draw an accurate polygon of the coverage area. I foresee governments undertaking these challenges, but the process looks to be heavily slanted in favor of ISPs.
There is also a direct consumer challenge, but I think this public is going to be quickly disappointed by the process. A consumer can challenge that a broadband product is available at their home, and if they win, the carrier simply must redraw the polygon to exclude them – consumer challenges won’t bring anybody better broadband. Consumers are mostly going to want to challenge broadband speeds being delivered, but it’s highly unlikely that consumer challenges will succeed since ISPs are perfectly justified in reporting advertised speeds.
The FCC has a testing regimen that it says can be used to resolve major differences between the ISPs and the public – and they tout currently performing a few thousand speed tests per year. Does the FCC not realize that there are millions of homes that are misclassified in today’s mapping? The FCC would have to oversee millions of tests to respond to the flood of challenges that are going to be coming to the public under the new mapping system – and that’s not going to happen.
The proposed FCC mapping rules are not going to fix the problem that the public most cares about. By accepting advertised speeds today, the FCC has excluded huge areas with dreadfully poor broadband from being eligible for federal broadband grants. As long as the FCC defines grant areas by speed rather than by technology, and as long as the FCC keeps allowing ISPs to report advertised speeds, the FCC databases and maps will continue to ignore the reality of rural broadband and will continue to exclude areas from grant availability.
If the FCC moves forward with the recently adapted mapping rules it is headed for a disaster. The agency is foolish to establish a process to allow the public to challenge ISP reporting if it ends up ignoring the vast majority of those challenges. The agency is in for a public relations disaster of epic proportions. I seriously doubt that the FCC understands how irate the public is over poor treatment by ISPs in rural America – and a poorly managed challenge process is going to redirect that anger towards the FCC.
I can already imagine the response the public is going to get to an FCC challenge. “Dear Consumer: We’re sorry you are only getting 2 Mbps broadband service. Your ISP is properly reporting speeds in your area where it advertises a speed of ‘up to 25/3 Mbps’. We are not planning on funding any broadband grants in your area because we are happy with any ISP that advertises 25/3 Mbps broadband. Further, your ISP tells us that you did not properly perform the speed test, so we must reject your challenge. We hope this email is able to reach you. Have a nice day. Sincerely, the FCC”.