Regulation - What is it Good For?

Broadband Mapping Woes Continue

The FCC’s plan to fix broadband mapping is progressing slowly. I think by now that everybody in the industry understands how lousy the FCC maps have been. Through a combination of dumb mapping rules and ISPs overreporting broadband speeds, the current maps sometimes completely miss the mark.

Congress got involved and passed legislation to require the FCC to fix the maps. In March 2020, Congress passed S.1822, the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technology Availability (DATA) Act. That bill requires the FCC to gather granular service data for wired, fixed wireless, and satellite broadband providers. It requires the FCC to consider using state broadband mapping data where states have tried to create a better picture of broadband. It also requires a crowdsourcing process to allow the public to participate in data collection. The Act provides for penalties against ISPs that knowingly or recklessly submit inaccurate mapping data. Finally, the Act requires the FCC to use better maps when making awards for broadband funding.

But as often happens in the government, this bill didn’t provide any funding to make the needed changes. The FCC started the process of formulating new rules after the passage of the Act, but didn’t take any action to fix the maps due to lack of funding.

Congress finally provided $98 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in December 2020 that included $65 million to create better maps. During that same month, the FCC completed the $7 billion RDOF reverse auction that was still based upon the lousy mapping – seemingly in violation of the Act.

In February of this year, the FCC under acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel established the Broadband Data Task Force with the aim of implementing the goals of the DATA Act and fixing the mapping. The FCC kicked off the new Broadband Data Collection (BDC) program in March 2021 to change the way that mapping data is collected from ISPs. The federal procurement process is slow, and the FCC finally released the RFP to hire a vendor to fix the mapping and eventually awarded a $45 million contract to CostQuest Associates.

In November, LightBox challenged that RFP award. According to federal procurement rules, it will take at least one hundred days for the FCC to deal with that challenge.

Meanwhile, it is raining federal broadband grant monies. There was a huge amount of potential grant funding in the ARPA legislation that gave some grant monies to federal agencies like the NTIA and the RUS. But that legislation gave far more money directly to cities, counties, and states – much of it directed at broadband. In November, Congress added another $42.5 billion in grants to the pile of federal money that is on the way.

All of these grants include some sort of speed test threshold to define what is eligible for grant funding. That’s going to require relying on the FCC maps. People all over the country are already making plans for applying for the BEAD grants, and they will be hindered all next year while waiting on the maps.

The FCC was recently asked by Congress for a status of the mapping update and the FCC has no estimated timeline for the introduction of revised mapping. I’ve talked to several knowledgeable folks who are estimating that it will be at least early 2023 before we get a gander at revised mapping. I think everybody expects the first version of the new maps to be a mess as ISPs try to interpret how to report in the new mapping system. In fact, that was one of the purposes for having a challenge process. It’s hard to think that it won’t be well into 2023 before the maps are scrubbed to the point of making sense.

And after all of that, I still hold out little hope for the new maps. ISPs are still going to be reporting theoretical marketing speeds instead of actual speeds. Further, as I wrote in a recent blog, there is no way to map actual speeds – it’s a futile quest. I personally don’t think it’s possible to create an accurate broadband map when two neighbors can experience different broadband speeds from the same ISP. But hopefully, we can at least improve the mapping to the point where the maps don’t stop neighborhoods from getting broadband upgrades.



Regulation - What is it Good For?

The FCC Finally Tackles New Mapping

Almost a year after having first approved the concept, the FCC recently started the process of developing new databases and maps. Last August the FCC approved the concept of having ISPs report broadband coverage by polygons, meaning that ISPs would draw lines around areas where they have active broadband customers or areas where ISPs can install a customer within a week of a request for service.

The FCC has been slow-rolling the process for the last year. They made announcements over a year ago that made rural America think that better maps are coming that will make it easier to correctly identify areas that have poor broadband. But last year’s big announcement only adopted the concept of better maps, and the recent vote took the first step towards implementing the concept.

Even now, it’s not clear that the FCC is ready to implement the new maps and the agency is still saying that it doesn’t have the money to change the ISP reporting process. This is hard to believe from an agency that is self-funded by fees and by spectrum auctions – the agency could have required the industry to pay for the new mapping at any time – but the FCC wants a specific allocation of funding from Congress. This feels like another delaying tactic.

There are good reasons for the FCC to not want better mapping. The FCC is required by law to take action to solve any big glaring difference between broadband availability in urban and rural areas. The agency has been doing everything possible over the last decade to not have to take such extraordinary steps.

Everybody involved in rural broadband knows that the current maps are dreadful. ISPs are free to claim broadband coverage and speeds in any manner they want, and from my experience, most rural counties have areas where broadband coverage or speeds are overstated. In many cases the overstatement of broadband is unbelievable. I recently was working with counties in Washington, New Mexico, and Minnesota where the FCC databases show 100% broadband coverage in rural areas when in real life there is almost zero broadband outside of towns.

This same mandate is the primary reason why the FCC doesn’t increase the definition of broadband, which has been set at 25/3 Mbps since 2015. Residents in well over half of the country, in cities and suburbs, have the option to buy broadband of 100 Mbps or faster. But the FCC sticks with the slower definition for rural America so that it doesn’t have to recognize that millions of rural homes, many in county seats in rural counties, don’t have broadband as good as in larger cities.

It is that same requirement to solve poor broadband that has driven the FCC to stick with mapping that FCC Commissioners all admit is inadequate. If the FCC fixes the maps, then many more millions of homes will become properly classified as not having broadband, and the FCC will be required to tackle the problem.

Unfortunately, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the new broadband mapping process. The biggest reason that today’s mapping doesn’t work is that ISPs are not required to tell the truth. Drawing polygons might decrease some of the areas where the ISPs claim coverage that doesn’t exist – but there is nothing in the new rules that force ISPs to report honest speeds. A rural county is still going to have overstated broadband coverage if ISPs continue to claim imaginary speeds – sometimes amazingly exaggerated. One of the counties I recently was working with has two wireless ISPs that claim countywide coverage of 100 Mbps broadband when it looks like the ISPs don’t operate in the county. The new mapping is not going to fix anything if an ISP can draw false polygons or report imaginary speeds. The new maps aren’t going to stop the exaggeration of rural DSL speeds by the big telcos.

Unfortunately, there are huge negative repercussions for areas where the ISPs lie about broadband coverage. The best example is the current RDOF auction where the FCC is awarding $16.4 billion in grants. None of the areas where ISPs have lied about broadband coverage are included in that grant program and won’t be included in future grants as long as ISPs keep lying about broadband coverage.

Lets not forget that ISPs have motivation for lying to the FCC about broadband coverage. Keeping grants our of rural areas shields the ISPs already operating there and protects rural ISPs that are selling 2 Mbps broadband for $70 per month. If these areas get grants the ISPs lose their customers. The penalties for overstating broadband speeds and coverage ought to be immense. In my mind, if an ISP deprives a rural county from getting broadband grants, then the ISP ought to be liable for the lost grant funding. If the FCC was to assess huge penalties for cheating the maps would be cleaned up overnight without having to switch to the polygons.

As usual, the FCC is pursuing the wrong solution and I suspect they know so. The big problem with the current maps is that ISPs lie about their coverage areas and about the speeds that are being delivered to customers. The FCC has the ability to require truthfulness and to fine ISPs that don’t follow its rules. The FCC could have implemented penalties for false reporting any time in the last decade. Implementing new mapping without implementing penalties for lying is just kicking the can down the road for a few more years so that the FCC won’t have to address the real rural broadband shortfalls in the country.

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