There is a mountain of complaints to be made about the new FCC maps. In some parts of the country there are a lot of missing rural locations, including entire subdivisions. Various ISPs have continued to exaggerate both coverage areas and broadband speeds. But even with all of the flaws there is a lot of interesting information in the new maps.
I live in Asheville, North Carolina. In the previous version of the FCC mapping the whole city and a lot of the surrounding areas were shown as having broadband available from Charter. There is also parts of the city that have fiber provided from AT&T. As you might imagine, the old maps didn’t tell the real story. The FCC mapping protocol showed an entire Census block covered by a given ISP that has even one customer in the Census block. It’s mostly this mapping rule that showed everybody here able to buy broadband from Charter.
The new maps are far more granular. If you search the map throughout the city you can find homes, businesses, and whole streets where Charter doesn’t claim to offer broadband. The AT&T coverage on the new maps shows how AT&T typically builds small fiber networks that cover only a few blocks in a given area.
Close analysis of the map shows what folks in the broadband world have always known, but were unable to prove, that the big cable companies and telcos don’t cover everybody. It is these unserved folks in the middle of cities that I call the hidden unserved locations. Such locations cannot buy the same broadband as nearby neighbors.
These little pockets came about for a variety of reasons. Some are costly to serve and the cable company decided not to reach them when the initial network was built. The cable company might not have been unable to obtain the needed rights-of-way for some reason. A house might be sitting inside of a park or other land that makes it complicated to pursue an easement. ISPs also don’t always automatically build to reach newly constructed homes, which can be a real shock to the new tenants.
In many of these cases where the cost to connect a drop is high, and an ISP often refuses to connect the location unless the customer pays for the cost of the connection. Everybody in the industry has heard the horror stories where an ISP quotes a cost of thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars to make a connection, even inside of a city. Many homes and businesses in this situation cannot afford the big connection fee.
It’s not always the ISPs fault that the broadband isn’t available. It’s not unusual for the owners of privately-owned road not to give permission to an ISP or others to dig up the streets. There are apartment buildings where the owner decided not to allow a given ISP into the building. There are homes where the owner doesn’t want a connection and refuses to provide an easement.
In looking around Asheville I found a surprising number of such locations. I found individual homes or pockets of homes that are not claimed as served by Charter. But the real surprises came when looking at the outer portions of the city. There are parts of neighborhoods that have been bypassed for some reason, even though homes further outside of the city have service. It also looks like neighborhoods with large lots and long driveways have been selectively bypassed.
This version of the FCC maps likely still has a lot of reporting errors. Some of the homes shown as not being served might have a connection available, while some homes shown as having broadband might not be able to get it. Over time it’s hopeful that a lot of these local issues will be resolved as people use the FCC map challenge to fix the maps. But I think a lot of these situations are real. It’s not worth the effort yet with this first iteration of the maps to dig too deeply. But cities are going to be able at some point to make an inventory of locations that don’t have good broadband. At that point cities will be able to work to close the gap of the hidden unserved locations.