Access to the FCC Broadband Maps

I suspect that there are already a lot of communities and other folks who are in violation of the license agreement to view and use the new FCC mapping fabric and associated data. CostQuest, the firm that created the mapping fabric, has provided communities and others with a basic license to view and utilize the mapping data strictly for the purpose of the Broadband Data Collection (BDC) process – for reviewing and challenging the FCC maps.

Anybody that wants to use the mapping data for any other purpose must sign a different agreement and pay to utilize the data. The basic CostQuest agreement clarifies that the mapping data can’t be used for any other purposes and gives examples of uses that are prohibited under the basic use contract. Communities or others with the basic license can’t use the mapping data to:

  • Prepare for the BEAD program, grant proposals, or other funding initiatives.
  • Broadband Mapping.
  • Opportunity Analysis.
  • Network Planning or Design.
  • Marketing purposes, such as sending mailers to addresses or identifying new customers to target marketing efforts.

I have to think that communities have already violated some of these prohibitions. It’s natural when getting the new data to want to map it so that elected officials and other stakeholders can see what has been reported to the FCC. I have a hard time thinking that ISPs won’t use the data when determining areas that are eligible for grants.

I am completely flabbergasted by this whole process. The FCC paid CostQuest $44 million to create the maps. One would think that would mean the resulting maps and data belongs to the FCC, and that CostQuest is just a vendor hired to create the maps and mapping fabric. But it appears that having created the maps is creating a permanent revenue stream for CostQuest, and the company is acting as if it is the owner of the federal mapping data. The NTIA has been negotiating to pay an additional $49.9 million to CostQuest to be able to use the mapping data during the BEAD grant process.

You have to let that sink in. One federal agency is paying a license fee that is higher than the cost of creating the maps in order to use the data that is gathered by the FCC. I have to imagine that CostQuest plans to extract fees from ISPs and communities to use the data for any purpose other than the BDC mapping challenge.

This raises a lot of questions, starting with the big question of why the FCC would allow a vendor to extract big fees to utilize a software system and data mandated and paid for by the FCC. Perhaps the bigger question is why broadband mapping data isn’t publicly available to everybody.

The funny thing is that you don’t need a license to use the data – just a license to use it easily. I looked at my own neighborhood, and I can see the ISPs that claim to be able serve each home, and in doing so I can see the border of any ISP’s claimed service area. For example, I can see in my neighborhood the several block area where AT&T has built fiber.

A small town could easily gather and map everything about its community by gathering the data for each home from the national map provided by the FCC. The licensing makes things easier by allowing the use of the underlying databases needed to analyze the data in mass instead of one home at a time.

It’s easy to see why there was such a big battle to win the mapping RFP, because this created a huge new permanent revenue stream for CostQuest to provide access to use the FCC data. I wrote a blog earlier this year talking about creating policies to make sure that communities have access to government data. I don’t know if there is anything more vital to communities with poor broadband than understanding the broadband map of who has and doesn’t have access to broadband.

I hope that the FCC will come to its senses and reclaim its own data, or at least mandate that it should be easily available to everybody. If not, this is something Congress ought to address. We’re spending billions to bring better broadband while absurdly making it hard for communities to use the public data that documents broadband coverage.

Maybe some smart programmer will solve this for everybody by capturing the data one house at a time from the FCC map and make the data available to everybody for free.

The Individual FCC Map Challenge

Hopefully, the word is getting out that individuals can challenge the FCC mapping. We’ve known for years that the FCC mapping is full of errors. ISPs often claim coverage and broadband speeds that are not actually available.

The new FCC map includes the ability to challenge the information that ISPs claim about the coverage at your home or business. The challenge process is built directly into the FCC Broadband map. Anybody can zero in on the map and see the broadband options that ISPs say are available at your location. There are a number of issues you can challenge for a given ISP:

  • The ISP denied a request for service via phone, the company’s website, or another method.
  • The ISP does not offer the technology reported on the FCC broadband map.
  • The ISP is unable or failed to schedule an installation date within 10 business days of your service request.
  • The ISP scheduled an installation but failed to perform the install at the scheduled date and time.
  • The ISP wants a fee greater than the advertised fee for an installation.
  • The ISP does not offer a product with the speed reported on the map. This challenge doesn’t say the ISP doesn’t deliver the speed, just that they didn’t offer the speed listed on the map.
  • No wireless or satellite signal is available at your location.
  • The ISP must construct new network to reach your location. Report if the ISP wants you to pay for construction.

If you challenge any of these items for a given ISP, the FCC will forward on your challenge to the ISP. If that ISP doesn’t respond or dispute the challenge, it must change its reporting for that location on the FCC map. For example, if it doesn’t offer service at your location, it must take you off its FCC map. If the ISP doesn’t offer the speed claimed to the FCC, it would have to lower the claimed speed it offers.

If the ISP disputes your claim, it must provide evidence to you and to the FCC that broadband is available at your location. After a dispute, the ISP has 60 days to reach an agreement with you about its claim. If you and the ISP can’t come to an agreement, the FCC says that it will then resolve the dispute within 90 days. That’s a real puzzler because the FCC doesn’t have the staff to process large volumes of such claims – they are banking on the ISP and the consumer reaching an agreement or the ISP backing down on the claim made on the maps.

The FCC hopes that over time that millions of such challenges will clean up the FCC mapping. The FCC believes that nobody knows more than you about what is available at your home. Rural folks, in particular, have dealt with ISPs that advertise but can’t actually deliver broadband to their home.

The challenge is somewhat weak in that making a challenge will rarely find you a broadband solution. But it’s possible that an ISP will agree to connect you after you make a challenge. The real benefit of the challenge process is to the whole community in that the FCC map gets cleaned up so that we can finally see and count the folks who can’t buy broadband. When it’s proven that your area doesn’t have broadband, the area becomes available for broadband grants.

Unfortunately, the challenge does not include the one thing that folks most want to challenge. You can’t file a formal challenge against an ISP that delivers speed that are far slower than what they sold to you. For example, you can’t file a formal challenge if an ISP sells you ‘up to’ 100 Mbps but delivers 3 Mbps. The FCC will accept this information, but they will treat it as a consumer complaint and not a mapping challenge. Unlike the challenge process, an ISP does not have to respond to a complaint. In fact, by deregulating broadband, the FCC under Ajit Pai weakened the complaint process to the point that it is toothless.

Note that you must provide your name and contact information to make a challenge because the FCC or an ISP might want to contact you. This means you can only challenge for your own location and not your neighbors. The real benefit of the challenge process will come if enough people in neighborhoods make the complaint to get the area maps corrected.

How Good are the New FCC Maps?

The long-promised new FCC maps came out recently, and everybody rushed to see what the maps said about their own home. But a lot of folks looked deeper to try to understand the difference between this and earlier maps. There are two ways to judge the maps – the mapping fabric and the broadband coverage story.

The mapping fabric represents the FCC’s attempt to count the number of locations with or without broadband. They chose to do this by trying to put every potential broadband customer on the FCC map. The FCC hired CostQuest to create the mapping fabric, and the company used a variety of data sources to pinpoint locations on the fabric.

The State of Vermont has already sent a challenge letter to the FCC that says that 11% of the locations in the FCC mapping Fabric don’t match Vermont’s own data. Even worse, Vermont says that 22% of locations it knows about are missing from the FCC map.

I looked at my own neighborhood, which is deep inside Asheville, NC. My neighborhood was established one hundred years ago, and as I expected, most homes are shown on the FCC map. But the FCC maps did not show several new homes that were built here in the last few years. My guess is that the FCC maps generally do better in cities than in suburbs and total areas.

Vermont also looked at the broadband coverage claims by ISPs. According to the new maps, over 95% of Vermont homes have access broadband to broadband of at least 100/20 Mbps. The State created its own broadband maps, which show that only 71% of homes in the state could receive broadband at 100 Mbps or faster at the end of 2021. In looking at the data, the difference seems to come from claims on the new FCC maps that satellite and fixed wireless broadband can reach huge numbers of folks – something that is not true in hilly and wooded Vermont. There also are ISPs that have claimed speeds that are faster than what the State believes is being delivered.

Industry folks have said all along that the new maps are not going to be any better than the old ones if an ISP can claim any marketing speed it wants with no repercussions for exaggerating speeds. There seems to be a lot of work still needed if the new maps are going to be used to allocate BEAD funding to states and, more importantly, to define areas that are eligible for grant funding.

On a local level, the new reporting is interesting. For example, in looking around my city, I can now find the little pockets where AT&T has built a few blocks of fiber. There was no way in the past to be this granular. The new maps are going to drive a lot of folks crazy to see that fiber is only a block away.

The new maps also let me look at Charter’s coverage in more detail than ever before. It’s been said for years that the big cable companies don’t serve everybody in cities, and assuming that Charter is reporting coverage accurately, this can now be verified. I found little pockets all around my city where Charter doesn’t serve. The old FCC reporting by Census block normally showed everybody in a metropolitan area having access to cable company broadband. The new map also shows at the edges of the city how Charter hops over some neighborhoods to serve others that are farther out.

My own house shows a lot of ISP options, some of which don’t really exist. For example, there are several WISPs shown as covering my neighborhood. There is no way that is possible from where the towers are located due to the large hills in the city that creates huge wireless dead zones. The cellular broadband speeds reported were a little more accurate. Verizon doesn’t show coverage at my home at all – which is true since there are also zero bars of voice coverage at my end of the block. I’m not sure why T-Mobile even bothers reporting the 0.2 Mbps speeds – that might be true – but isn’t that really zero broadband? The satellite speeds reported at my house are improbable in a city surrounded by a bowl of mountains and a lot of trees.

For those who haven’t looked yet, here is the new map. I’d be interested to hear from anybody who was surprised by what the maps show for your home.

Broadband Map of the US

broadband-by-congressional-districtConsider the following map of US broadband. This map was compiled by Gizmodo using data on broadband usage gathered by Ookla. This is a rather different map than the official US Broadband Map that is generated by the FCC. The official map uses data that is self-reported by the carriers. However, this map has been created by sampling and pinging actual Internet connections. Ookla owns speedtest.net and tests millions of connections from all across the country and at all times of the day.

This map is at a fairly high level and is shown per congressional district. But more detailed maps are available at the state and County level.

broadband-by-congressional-district

This map shows that there is a wide disparity of broadband speeds around the country. One surprising finding to me is that the average Internet connection is now at 18.2 Mbps download. The map then goes on to show those areas that are faster than average in blues and slower than average in reds. The 18.2 Mbps number is faster than I expected and goes to show that carriers around the country have been increasing speeds. This is certainly faster than the speeds that have been reported by other sources.

When you look deeper than this map at the broadband statistics you see a lot of what you would expect to see. Urban areas generally have faster broadband than rural areas. And the Verizon FiOS areas have much faster broadband than other parts of the country.

And this map shows some areas with fast broadband that might surprise people. For example, North and South Dakota have faster than average broadband. This is because the states are largely served by independent telephone companies that have built fiber into small towns and rural areas. And central Washington has some of the fastest broadband in the country thanks to several municipal networks that have built fiber-to-the-home.

One thing the map doesn’t show, at this high level, is that there are pockets of fast Internet scattered in many places. There are FTTH networks built in many small towns but these towns are not large enough to skew the data for the larger congressional districts shown on this map.

One state with high broadband is Florida, where I live. I have speeds available up to 104 Mbps from Comcast. The map for Florida shows what the cable companies are capable of and it’s a shame they have not improved their networks in more places to be this fast.

Ookla reports that the fastest town in the US is Ephrata, Washington with an average download speed of 85.5 Mbps. Second is Kansas City at 49.9 mbps. One would assume that with gigabit service that Kansas City will become the fastest place as more people are added to Google’s fiber.

One thing the map shows, is that an awfully lot of the country is below the average. Ookla reports that the slowest places are Chinla and Fort Defiance in Arizona which both have an average speed of less than 1.5 Mbps. These towns are within the Apache reservation and many native American towns are woefully underserved. The map shows large swaths of poorly served areas like West Virginia and Kentucky in Appalachia, like north Texas and Oklahoma, like Wyoming and Montana, and Maine.

I know at my house I have a 50 Mbps cable modem service and to me it feels just right. It allows us to watch multiple streaming videos while also working and using  computers for on-line gaming. I just moved from a place where my speeds would bounce between 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps and I can see a big difference. In my line of work I talk to people all of the time in rural areas who are still stuck with only dial-up or satellite as their broadband options. I know I could not do my job from such areas. These areas probably are not even showing up on this map because people who have connections that slow are probably not doing speed tests very often. They know they are slow.

The good news to me from this map is that the average speed in the US is up to 18 Mbps. But the bad news is that there are so many large areas left without good broadband. We still have a lot of work to do.