We Need Penalties for Bad FCC Mapping Data

The FCC has been in the process of implementing revised mapping that will fix a lot of the problems with the current 477 broadband reporting process. The needed changes should be further boosted by the Broadband DATA Act that was signed into law on Monday. The new mapping will use polygons, and ISPs are supposed to show precise coverage areas for where they offer or don’t offer broadband.

If ISPs do this correctly – and that’s a big if – then this will fix at least one big problem that I call the town boundary problem. The current FCC data gathering asks ISPs to report the fastest speed they can deliver in a census block. Unfortunately, census blocks don’t stop at town boundaries, and so the FCC databases regularly assumes that all of the people outside of town can receive the same speeds as people inside the towns. If cable companies and fiber providers draw honest polygons that stop where their network stops, this boundary issue should disappear.

Unfortunately, the benefits of the new mapping are not so clear cut in rural areas. DSL providers and fixed wireless providers are also supposed to draw polygons. The rural polygons are supposed to only cover existing customers as well as places that can be connected within ten business days of a customer request for activation.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking through the claimed coverage on Form 477 by telco DSL and WISPs. Some of the things I see in the FCC database are massively erroneous and I’m not convinced that rural ISPs will clean up their act even if they are forced to use the polygons. Consider a few examples:

  • I’ve been working with a sparsely populated county that has large rural census blocks – which is pretty normal. The incumbent telco claims 25/3 Mbps coverage for almost all of the rural areas of the county. We’ve been working with the county to have residents perform speed tests and have seen almost no speeds faster than 5 Mbps, with some speeds on DSL below 1 Mbps. The incumbent telco does widely offer DSL, but the claimed 25/3 Mbps capability reported to the FCC is pure fantasy.
  • I’m working with another rural county where two WISPs claim to provide 100 Mbps wireless service covering the whole county. The WISPs don’t operate towers in the county and their nearest towers are in a nearby county. The county has undertaken a large canvass of residents to identify the ISPs in the county and so far hasn’t found even one customer of these WISPs. Even if they find a few customers, the WISPs can’t deliver 100 Mbps wireless broadband from towers more than 10 miles away – it’s doubtful they deliver that much speed even next to the existing towers.

I am not convinced that the revised FCC mapping is going to fix these two situations. The incumbent telco is going to say that they can install DSL within ten business days everywhere in the county – so they might not shrink their claimed coverage when going to the polygons. The problem with the telco isn’t the coverage area – it’s the claimed speeds. If the new FCC reporting still allows ISPs to overstate speeds, then nothing will be fixed in this county with the new mapping.

The two WISPs have a double problem. First, the coverage area of the two WISPs seem to be highly exaggerated. The WISPs are also exaggerating the broadband speeds available and there is zero chance that the WISPs are delivering speeds even remotely close to 100 Mbps broadband from a distant tower. These WISPs seem to be guilty of overstating both the coverage areas and the speeds. Unfortunately, the WISPs might still claim they can install in this area within 10 business days and might not shrink their claimed coverage. And unless they are somehow forced, the WISPs might not lower the claim of 100 Mbps.

There are real life consequences to the claims made in these two examples. In the first example, the FCC believes the whole county has access to 25/3 Mbps DSL, when in fact it looks like nobody has DSL even close to that speed. The county with the two WISPs is in even worse shape. The FCC considers this county completely covered with 100/10 Mbps broadband, when in fact there is no fast broadband coverage. In reality, the fastest broadband option in some parts of the county is a third WISP that markets speeds of 15 Mbps but mostly delivers less.

The consequences of the current mapping are dire for both of these counties. These counties are not included in the FCC’s eligible areas for $20 billion RDOF grants that was just published because the FCC thinks these counties have good broadband. If the ISP data being reported was honest, both counties would be eligible for these grants. These counties might be eligible for other grants that would allow the grant applicant to challenge the FCC speed data – but such challenges are a lot of work and don’t always get accepted.

I know there are hundreds of other counties in the same situation, and I have little faith that new mapping is going to fix this in rural areas. What is needed are severe fines for ISPs that overstate speed or coverage areas. In this case, the existing ISPs are causing huge economic harm to these counties and the fines ought to be set accordingly. I don’t understand what motivates ISPs to claim speeds that don’t exist – but if we are going to fix rural broadband, we need to start by kicking the bad ISP actors hard in the pocketbook.

The Broadband DATA Act allows for a challenge process so that localities can force honest reporting. The FCC needs to implement this immediately, without more study or delay.

How Many Homes Can’t Get Broadband?

cheetah-993774The FCC periodically puts out some very high-level statistics that talk about the state of broadband in the US. They issued their annual broadband report in January and made the following high-level announcements:

  • 39% of rural households don’t have access to broadband that meets the FCC definition of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
  • 4% of urban households don’t have access to those speeds.
  • 41% of schools still do not have 100 Mbps download speeds.
  • Only 9% of schools have 1 Gbps broadband.

I looked deeper into how the FCC counts these various numbers to try to make some sense of them, and the following is what I discovered.

First, they followed the Census definition of urban and rural areas. The Census defines urban areas in one of two ways. One definition of an urban area is a defined geography with more than 50,000 people. It can also be a cluster of smaller towns in a fairly adjacent geographical area that has more than 2,500 people but less than 50,000. In the Census estimate for 2015 the urban areas include about 260 million people. Anything that is not urban is rural, which in 2015 is about 61.5 million people.

If a rural county has a county seat with more than 50,000 people, the county seat would counted as urban and the rest of the county would be rural. Otherwise the whole county is normally counted as rural. But in big urban areas, like the northeast corridor, many areas that you would consider as rural are included in the urban areas. So there is a significant amount of crossover at the edges of these two types of areas. For instance, for broadband purposes we know that somebody that lives 50 feet past where the cable company stops at a county seat might not be able to get broadband, but they might often still be counted as urban.

The raw data that backs up these statistics is still self-reported to the FCC by the ISPs annually on Form 477. On this form telcos and cable companies must report the speeds that they deliver to census blocks, which are census-defined areas of 500 to 900 homes. I looked through this mass of data and there are a huge number of census blocks that are reported at broadband speeds like 3 Mbps or 6 Mbps download. In most cases this is DSL, and our experience is that a whole lot of people in rural DSL areas can’t really get those speeds. That is the ‘advertised’ speed or the theoretical speed. This has always been an issue and I’ve always contended that there are far more homes that can’t get broadband than are reported by Form 477.

Using these FCC numbers means that there are about 24 million people (or 10 million homes) in the rural areas that can’t get the FCC’s defined broadband speeds. While the 4% of urban areas that can’t get fast broadband sounds small, it still equates to 10.4 million people or 4.3 million homes. So what the FCC numbers are really saying is that there are 34 million people and 14.7 million homes in the country that can’t get an FCC-define broadband connection.

I am positive that this number is conservatively low. Census blocks are not assigned by nice political boundaries and there are huge numbers of census blocks that cover both towns and country areas. There has to be many homes that are in census blocks where some of the people can get the speeds shown on Form 477 while others can’t. My guess is that there must be additional millions of people that supposedly can get broadband but that really can’t. Even in towns anybody that lives right past where the cable TV network stops is not going to get much broadband.

The FCC says that they are solving part of the rural broadband problem with CAF II funding which is supposed to bring faster connections to 3.6 million of these homes. But those funds only require upgrades to technology that will achieve 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. That program is not going to remove any homes from the list of those that can’t get broadband.

I really hate to see public announcements that talk in nationwide percentages instead of numbers. This always makes it feel like they are trying to pull something over on us. I had to dig really hard to go one level behind the one-page press release – and that doesn’t really help the public to understand the situation. Much more useful would have been detailed tables by geographic areas that let people see the state of broadband in their area. I suspect they don’t do that because then many of the problems with carrier self-reporting would be more obvious.