Public Reporting of Broadband Speeds

The FCC’s Acting Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel wrote a recent blog that talks about the progress the FCC is making towards revising the FCC mapping system. The blog concentrates on the upcoming consumer portal to provide input into the FCC maps.

It’s good to see progress finally being made on the maps – this has been discussed but not implemented for over two years. And it’s good that the public will have a way to provide input to the FCC database. Hopefully, the FCC will change the rules before the new mapping tools are implemented because the current rules don’t let the public provide any worthwhile input to the mapping data.

The current mapping rules were implemented in Docket FCC 21-20 on January 13 of this year – one of the last acts of outgoing Chairman Ajit Pai. Those rules outline a consumer input process to the mapping that is going to be a lot less impactful than what the public is hoping for.

The new FCC maps will require that ISPs draw ‘polygons’ around the areas where there is existing broadband coverage, or where the ISP can install broadband with 10 days of a consumer request. A consumer can challenge the availability of broadband at their home. If a consumer claims that broadband is not available at an address, the ISP is required to respond. If there is no broadband available at the address, the likely response of the ISP will be to amend the polygon to exclude the challenged address. I guess that consumers who can’t buy broadband from a given ISP can gain some satisfaction from having that ISP fix the maps to set the record straight. But the complaint is unlikely to get broadband to the home where broadband is not available.

Unfortunately, the challenge process is not going to help in the much more common situation where a household has dreadfully slow broadband. The ISP might be advertising speeds of ‘up to 25/3 Mbps’ but delivering only a tiny fraction of that speed. This is the normal situation for rural DSL and many fixed wireless connections – speeds customers see are much slower than what ISPs claim on the FCC maps.

Unless the FCC changes the rules established in this Docket, a consumer claiming slow broadband will see no change to the FCC map. The January rules allow ISPs to continue to claim marketing speeds in the new FCC mapping system. A rural ISP can continue to claim ‘up to 25/3 Mbps’ for an area with barely functioning broadband as long as the ISP advertises the faster up-to speed.

The FCC needs to change the rules established in the January Docket or they are going to witness a rural revolt. Consumers that are seeing broadband speeds that are barely faster than dial-up are going to flock to the new FCC reporting portal hoping for some change. Under the current rules, the FCC is going to side with the ISP that advertises speeds faster than it delivers.

The FCC has a real dilemma on how to change the public reporting process. The FCC can’t automatically side with each consumer. Any given consumer that reports slow speeds might be seeing the impact of an old and outdated WiFi router, or have some other issue inside the home that is killing the speed delivered by the ISP. But when multiple homes in a neighborhood report slow speeds, then the ISP is almost certainly delivering slow speeds.

Unfortunately, there is no way to report ‘actual’ speeds on an FCC map. If you ever ran a speed test multiple times during a day and night you know that the broadband speed at your home likely varies significantly during a day. What’s the ‘actual’ broadband data speed for a home that sees download speeds vary from 5 Mbps to 15 Mbps at different times of the day?

The consumer challenge of FCC data was dreamed up to allow the public to tell a broadband story different than what the ISPs have been reporting to the FCC. Unfortunately, it’s not going to work to anybody’s satisfaction. The real culprit in this story is the idea that we can define broadband somehow by speed – that there is a functional difference between a broadband connection that delivers 5 Mbps or 15 Mbps. The fact is that both connections are dreadfully slow and should not be considered as broadband. But as long as we have grant programs that fund areas that have speeds under 10/1 Mbps or 25/3 Mbps, we’ll keep having these dumb processes that pretend that we know the actual speed on even a single rural broadband connection. The fact is – we don’t and we can’t.

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