The FCC report on internet access services released in February 2018 seemed to reveal an encouragingly steady growth in internet access across the United States. However, it drew significant criticism for its data sources and usage, with many people pointing out that the increase in access is still woefully insufficient for many rural and underserved communities.
While consumers are increasingly using bandwidth-heavy applications such as OTT, access to broadband at sufficiently fast speeds is barely growing – creating challenges to innovation and prosperity. The primary issue with reaching these underserved areas is not with broadband providers. Many of these underserved communities lack the infrastructure to successfully deliver broadband services. The initial costs of creating this infrastructure are prohibitive to business unless the government is able to provide support.
A quick glance at any specific area of the chart would seem to indicate that many customers have access to reliable broadband. However, this coverage is a mirage due to some clever data wrangling. For example, the FCC’s map shows an entire census block as having broadband access even if only a single household has that access. But census blocks may be huge – one in Alaska is over 8,500 square miles.
The map also shows that there are areas with multiple providers while failing to indicate that not all households within these areas actually have reliable internet access due to costs or household location. For example, the FCC included satellite providers in the data, but these often have data caps and high latency, and they fail to come close to the minimum standard 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up speeds.
Duped by data?
The concept of a map showing coverage is useful, but only if it is based on accurate, up-to-date data and if it has effective methods for the display of that information. The first FCC internet access map took shape during the Obama administration, with an initial $300 million in funding.
The map data was aggregated from the ISPs via Form 477. Theoretically, the map would have helped highlight the challenges in delivering service across the 50 states. However, after funding for the map dried up, the original project was shelved. The FCC has pulled it out and attempted a revamp of the project.
The problem is that the new map is also based on problematic data and methods. The data used to create the map is from 2016, so it does not depict broadband providers who have entered the market since then. The distribution of services is based on the same faulty assumptions used in the earlier map, such as using census blocks as representatives of broadband service, misrepresenting the number of providers and not clearly identifying the method of broadband delivery. Most importantly, the FCC failed to include pricing data for the services, which is an essential aspect of buying and selling broadband.
The FCC’s map is much like the WebMD symptom checker. It shows a lot of information, but it does not clearly pinpoint the real problem. Providing internet access to remote communities requires significant startup costs. Someone needs to build the infrastructure to deliver service, and that costs money. To bolster internet access in underserved areas, the government should provide funding to broadband providers to address the high initial costs of reaching these areas.