How the FCC’s Faulty National Broadband Map Renders Americans Without Internet Access Invisible
In an era when broadband is essential to innovation, jobs, and education, the U.S. digital infrastructure is at risk as millions of Americans across the nation still lack access to high-speed internet. Lack of reliable and affordable internet is a long-standing problem that disproportionately impacts people residing in rural, marginalized, and low-income communities. Both the digital economy and COVID-19 have driven home the realization that broadband is too essential of a service to leave its adoption to personal circumstance.
In an effort to close the digital divide and to meet its goal of making high-speed internet available and affordable for all Americans, the Biden administration and a bipartisan group of senators introduced an infrastructure plan with $65 billion in funds targeted at broadband buildouts and affordability — over $42 billion of which would go to deploying broadband in unserved and underserved communities. Although funding has been earmarked for broadband deployment to connect rural and low-income communities, a fundamental flaw that will exist in the nation’s new broadband maps prevents policymakers from knowing where the gaps in broadband coverage actually lie.
Simply put, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and other federal agencies currently lack the data needed to adequately address gaps in broadband coverage across the country. This is in large part due to a faulty FCC national broadband data map that has essentially rendered millions of Americans who are without high-speed internet “invisible” when leaders look to identify underserved areas. Although the FCC has been in the process of updating its current broadband maps with more detailed and precise information on the availability of broadband services, these maps will likely still be riddled with many of the same faults of previous maps, including service providers claiming to offer speeds and availability that do not align with the everyday reality of consumers in those communities.
Past Broadband Mapping Efforts Frustrated Work to Close the Digital Divide
Faulty broadband mapping data harkens back to the early days of broadband deployment. To accelerate deployment of broadband services and promote competition, Congress introduced the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which required the FCC to make sure everyone in the US has access to “advanced telecommunications capability.” Today, this is better known as broadband. Section 706 of the Act required the FCC to determine whether broadband services were being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. If it determined that broadband was not being deployed in a reasonable and timely manner, the Commission was instructed to take immediate action to accelerate broadband deployment. The Commission was further instructed to issue annual reports to help identify geographical areas that were not being serviced by any broadband service provider and to determine the population, population density, and average per capita income for each of those areas.
In March 2000, the agency adopted a semi-annual reporting requirement, instead of an annual one to “improve and expand” the data it received. Beginning in May 2000, the FCC required facilities-based fixed broadband providers to file what’s called “Form 477 data” twice a year with the FCC indicating in which census blocks they offered or could offer broadband (mobile providers report on their license coverage areas). Because census blocks are not defined by population, but rather determined by streets, roads, and other visible physical and cultural features, they could be very small in urban areas and span hundreds of miles in rural areas. Unfortunately, these maps suffered from a host of problems, which the FCC itself has acknowledged. They overestimated deployment by looking at whether broadband providers could provide service, not whether they did provide service. They also counted every household in a census block as a “served” household, even if just one home or business within that block is served. This has caused the FCC to underestimate the number of Americans served by at least 20 million (some estimates show 42 million lack service). Data on available speeds may also be inaccurate because broadband providers need only report the speeds they advertise, not the speeds consumers actually get. Finally, and most importantly, the data is self-reported by broadband providers, and traditionally unverified by the FCC. In the past, internet service providers have given the FCC woefully inaccurate information that significantly overstates deployment. For example, AT&T falsely reported serving nearly 3,600 census blocks across 20 states last year.
Not surprisingly, an even deeper dive into the data further revealed that the undercounts tended to be greater in states with higher rural and low-income populations, signifying these communities are less likely to get the needed funding for broadband deployment in their area. This gross misrepresentation of broadband coverage has contributed significantly to a concept known as “digital redlining,” which occurs when internet service providers systematically underinvest in low-income and marginalized communities by either not deploying broadband at all, or by failing to maintain existing networks, rendering the service increasingly slow and unreliable. Relying on a census block level understanding of deployment often masks these problems.
To address these shortcomings, Congress passed the bipartisan “Broadband DATA Act” in 2020. Specifically, Congress instructed the FCC to collect more granular data about broadband availability and to establish a process to verify the accuracy of such data (including through crowdsourcing and a process by which states and others can challenge the data). Although the FCC has not yet begun to collect this new information, when it does, the data will be much improved, especially with the challenge process established by the law, but could still suffer from many of the same flaws as previous FCC maps. I say this because the data will still be self-reported by broadband providers and will still undercount the number of Americans served since it will require providers to report only where they could offer service — not where they do offer service. Moreover, although Congress required broadband providers to submit more granular data in the form of shapefiles (I think of these as a literal shape on a map that are far smaller than census blocks), they will not be required to submit data about the availability of broadband at each address. Thus, broadband providers can still report an area as served, even if they do not serve all locations within that area. Finally, this new data will continue to overestimate speeds by reporting on offered, and not actual speeds.
The Next Phase – Ensuring Quality Broadband Access for All Americans with Accurate Maps
Although the new maps created as a result of the Broadband DATA Act will help states and federal agencies better understand where broadband is and isn’t available, the data still won’t be completely accurate. That’s going to present a major problem as states and federal agencies endeavor to distribute billions of dollars in broadband deployment funding (including about $42 billion for deployment in the new bipartisan infrastructure package). Although the infrastructure package proposes its own challenge process by which states, Tribes, and others can challenge where money is being distributed (in addition to the challenge process that will eventually be created to dispute the maps themselves), we can anticipate that some truly unserved or underserved areas still won’t get the funding they need. These communities are likely to be both rural and urban as well as predominantly low-income. I’m particularly concerned this new map will continue to obscure where digital redlining is occurring in low-income and marginalized communities because the shapefiles may not be sufficiently granular. It could also continue to mask the rural locations where broadband providers have not built because the shapefile encompasses too large of an area.
Moving forward, we urge the FCC to require broadband providers to submit address-level information about the areas they actually serve, along with the speeds that consumers are actually getting to truly find where service is lacking. When the FCC combines that information with a robust challenge process, we can be confident that we are getting funding to the areas that need it.