Mike Conlow wrote a recent blog on Substack that discusses how cellular companies are reporting large numbers of passings on the FCC maps as having the capability to receive exactly 25/3 Mbps or 100/20 Mbps.
Mike uses the example of North Carolina to highlight the issue. In the previous FCC map, UScellular claimed 1.13 million locations in the state that could receive speeds of 25/3 Mbps for fixed cellular broadband. In the latest map, UScellular dropped this number to 224,000 locations. T-Mobile made a similar claim, but only dropped claims of 25/3 Mbps capability from 1.06 million to 1.04 million.
That isn’t a very fast broadband speed, so why does this make any difference? It turns out that the NTIA is using the number of locations with speeds under 25/3 Mbps to allocate the $42.5 BEAD grant dollars between states. I happen to know that North Carolina has an aggressive mapping team that no doubt leaned on UScellular to fix its maps. But other states are probably not as aggressive and are losing a lot of BEAD grant dollars if they didn’t fix similar claims.
The problem is that, in many cases, the claimed speeds are not true. The technologies that I see claiming exactly 25/3 Mbps speeds include DSL, fixed cellular broadband, and fixed WISP broadband. It’s not hard to find examples where cellular companies and WISPs are claiming identical speeds across large geographic areas. That’s not how wireless technologies works. Speeds steadily decrease with the distance between a customer and a tower. Even if these ISPs are being truthful about the speeds that can be delivered close to towers, these speeds are exaggerated for customers farther from towers. It sounds like UScellular in North Carolina might have acknowledged the physics in lowering its claims.
It’s important to point out that any ISP claiming 25/3 Mbps is probably doing nothing wrong under the FCC mapping rules. The FCC allows ISP to report marketing speeds instead of trying to report accurate actual speeds. As long as an ISP is advertising speeds of ‘up to 25/3 Mbps’, it is not breaking the FCC mapping rules.
The title of this blog calls this a fixation on 25/3 Mbps. This particular problem was created when the politicians that wrote the BEAD grant (and other federal grants) rules tied eligibility for funding to the FCC maps and to specific speeds. This is an incredibly shortsighted idea because, by definition, the FCC’s allows ISPs to overstate speeds.
I have no doubt that tying grant eligibility to the FCC maps was done at the prompting of the biggest ISPs who undoubtedly helped to write the BEAD grant rules. The other speed used to define grant-eligible areas is 100/20 Mbps. That speed was chosen for the BEAD rules after a lot of political wrangling. The 100/20 Mbps speed was chosen to provide cover to cable companies to avoid the risk of being overbuilt by BEAD grants. Even if a cable company isn’t quite delivering an upload speeds of 20 Mbps, it can avoid entanglements with grants by declaring in the FCC maps it is meeting that speed.
It’s hard to understand the motivation of an ISP that claims 25/3 Mbps broadband when it knows it is delivering something slower. In this case, the overstatement of speed means that a state will get less BEAD grant funding – something the ISP might be interested in receiving. A claimed speed of 25/3 doesn’t make an area ineligible for grant funding – it just reduces the funding the state will receive. I suspect most ISPs claiming 25/3 Mbps are just declaring the marketing speed and don’t have any other hidden agenda.
While false claims of ISPs delivering 25/3 hurt the amount of BEAD funding coming to a state, the real problem comes from ISPs that falsely claim to be able to deliver 100/20 Mbps broadband. Under the BEAD and other federal and state grant rules, such areas are considered as served and grant money can’t be used to compete in these areas. All an ISP has to do to keep away grant competition is to claim a marketing speed of 100/20 Mbps. I think many of the ISPs making claiming 100/20 Mbps know exactly what they are doing – they are trying to fend off faster competition.
To me, this is akin to when CenturyLink and Frontier changed the claimed speeds in tens of thousands of Census blocks right before the FCC determined the areas eligible for RDOF. The FCC rejected those last-minute changes, which were blatant attempts to protect monopoly rural areas from the RDOF funding.
Just as an aside, the FCC supposedly was going to make RDOF available to all unserved locations in the country. Even with the above reporting issues that are badly suppressing the count of unserved locations, there are still 8.3 million unserved areas in the country, according to the latest FCC maps. The fact that RDOF missed 8.3 million eligible locations is probably the best example of why grants and subsidies should never be tied to the FCC broadband maps.
I have a simple fix for the current situation. If I was the NTIA, I would make one simple change before allocating BEAD dollars. I’d reduce every claimed speed of exactly 25 Mbps broadband to 24 Mbps. I’d then invite ISPs to prove they can meet the 25/3 speed. I would do the same and reduce every claim of exactly 100 Mbps download to 99 Mbps when defining grant eligible areas. My guess is that this change would produce more accurate maps than the ones we have now. I’d give ISPs plenty of time to claim that the adjustment is wrong – which would be a better conversation than the flurry of map challenges we’re now seeing.
However, while this idea has appeal, it would be another rule based on our fixation of defining broadband with a specific speed number.