Map spam paints false picture of U.S. broadband service

2 September 2013 by Steve Blum
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The national broadband map has been updated and it now includes coverage claims submitted by service providers as of the end of 2012. The map is supposed to a guide for federal and state policy makers as they try to manage, regulate, subsidise and, overall, encourage the development of broadband infrastructure and service. But unless you dig deep into the raw numbers and ignore the consumer (and politician) friendly interface, all it does is prove, once again, that garbage in, garbage out is a universal law.

Taken at face value, the map shows that remote mountain valleys and desert basins aside, there are relatively few areas in the country where broadband service of at least 768 Kbps download is not available. And the vast majority of the population can get download speeds of 6 Mbps or better, which is the Californian standard for acceptable broadband service.

Map on the right shows areas where wireline providers claim to provide download speeds of 6 Mbps or better. Map on the left shows the same claims made by wireless providers

A quick comparison of technologies pinpoints the problem: wireless service providers claim to provide high rates of speed over vast distances, without regard for terrain, capacity or user’s equipment, effectively spamming the national map with availability data that is, at best, aspirational and, frequently, fictional.

Some wireless providers are better than others, but technically defensible claims are washed out by the aggressive advertising of less capable or ethical WISPs.

There are bright spots. The map offers a dramatic look at the difference between advertising claims and speeds actually measured by the FCC, at least to the extent those measurements have been made. There are also tools you can use to sort the data by technology and make comparisons. The data itself is collected by states. Here in California we have better tools for analysis.

It’s possible to sift the raw data, as I did for the East Bay Broadband Consortium, and establish a reasonably sound basis for decision making. But taking the national map at face value does little except reinforce the incumbents’ mantra that all’s well and give policy makers a false sense of a job well done.