FCC doesn’t swallow broadband map spam, but still does an availability victory dance

7 May 2019 by Steve Blum
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The Federal Communications Commission re-did its annual analysis of broadband availability in the U.S., after a broadband advocacy group and Microsoft separately called bullshit on the first version. But it’s not backing away from its claim that “significant progress has been made in closing the digital divide in America”.

Free Press is the broadband advocacy group that spotted a truckload of map spam when the FCC pushed out a press release in February, claiming broadband “is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis”. That claim was based on availability data submitted by Internet service providers, including one – BarrierFree – that smeared gigabit service claims over 100% of the census blocks in eight states.

Those reports were apparently removed – the latest press release only said that “a company submitted drastically overstated deployment data” – and that did change the numbers. But it didn’t change the FCC chair Ajit Pai’s conclusion that “we are closing the digital divide”, based on analysis that apparently shows an increase of nearly five million households with access to the federal agriculture department’s benchmark broadband speed standard of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. That’s also the minimum that the FCC says is needed for access to what it says are “advanced services” and everyone else calls plain, old service.

There is still reason to doubt this new conclusion. The FCC’s data submission specifications inherently result in over reporting: if one customer in a census block can get a broadband connection at, say, 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, then the entire census block is flagged as having access to that level of service. The reality, though, is often dramatically different, as Microsoft demonstrated with actual usage data it collects.

The FCC hasn’t addressed that problem yet. It’s probably too much to expect anything other than mindless boosterism from this FCC’s publicity machine. But we might get a clearer picture when the full report is finally approved by commissioners and released publicly.