FCC finally orders ISPs to say exactly where they offer broadband

A map of the United States with lines and dots to represent broadband networks.

The Federal Communications Commission voted today to collect more accurate data about which parts of the US have broadband and which parts lack high-speed connectivity. From now on, home Internet providers will have to give the FCC geospatial maps of where they provide service instead of merely reporting which census blocks they offer service in.

The FCC’s current broadband mapping system has serious limitations. The Form 477 data-collection program that requires ISPs to report census-block coverage lets an ISP count an entire census block as served even if it can serve just one home in the block. There are millions of census blocks across the US, and each one generally contains between 600 and 3,000 people.

Perhaps even worse, ISPs can count a census block as served in some cases where they don’t provide any broadband in the block. That’s because the FCC tells ISPs to report where they could offer service “without an extraordinary commitment of resources.” An ISP could thus count a census block as served if it’s near its network facilities, but in practice ISPs have charged homeowners tens of thousands of dollars for line extensions.

The current mapping system is ripe for abuse and mistakes, as evidenced by a brand-new ISP named BarrierFree falsely claiming to serve 20% of the US population. The FCC pretty much takes ISPs at their word, and Pai took credit for broadband-deployment gains without realizing that his data was inflated by this gigantic error. The FCC only corrected the mistake after advocacy group Free Press discovered it.

For years, ISPs and broadband lobby groups have tried to avoid providing more accurate information to the government, complaining that it would be too difficult. But even Republicans in Congress, who generally resist any effort to regulate ISPs, have complained about the inaccurate maps, raising pressure on FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and industry to fix the problem.

When it became clear that Pai’s FCC would do something, industry lobby groups offered their own proposals for improving the mapping system, which helped pave the way for today’s vote. While the new system should be a big improvement over the current one, Democrats on the FCC criticized Pai for not also requiring the collection of broadband-pricing data.

ISPs must submit polygons

Improving the mapping system is especially timely because the FCC today also gave preliminary approval to a 10-year, $20.4 billion fund that would pay ISPs to bring broadband to unserved rural areas. Without accurate maps, it’s hard to figure out exactly where that money should go. The “new” $20.4 billion fund is really a continuation of the FCC’s existing universal-service payouts to ISPs, so previous disbursements were made with the existing, less accurate data.

Pai’s mapping order (full text) says it “will collect geospatial broadband coverage maps from Internet service providers,” and create a crowdsourcing system to collect public input on the accuracy of ISP-submitted maps.

The FCC order says:

We require all fixed providers to submit broadband coverage polygons depicting the areas where they actually have broadband-capable networks and make fixed broadband service available to end-user locations. The filings must reflect the maximum download and upload speeds actually made available in each area, the technology used to provide the service, and a differentiation between residential-only, business-only, or residential-and-business broadband services. Fixed providers in the new collection must submit a broadband coverage polygon for each combination of download speed, upload speed, and technology. Where fixed providers offer different maximum speeds to residential and business customers, even if using the same network facilities, they must file separate polygons. Where the offered speed varies by location or distance from network facilities, fixed providers must submit separate polygons to reflect those differing maximum offered speeds.

ISPs could still count homes that aren’t currently connected to their networks, but the FCC has tightened the criteria for doing so. ISPs may only count an area as served if the ISP “has a current broadband connection or it could provide such a connection within ten business days of a customer request and without an extraordinary commitment of resources or construction costs exceeding an ordinary service activation fee.”

The order continues:

The filer must be able to establish a connection within this timeframe to every end-user location contained in the reported broadband coverage polygon. Under this standard, a fixed provider must have fiber or cable in place proximate, if not connected, to the locations within its reported polygons—for example, we expect a residence would be included only if the utility pole or conduit on the right of way adjacent to the residence is already wired and awaiting just a drop cable. A fixed wireless provider must have already installed enough base stations to cover and meet reasonably anticipated customer capacity demands; the installation of an additional base station, for example, would constitute an extraordinary commitment of resources. Fixed broadband services are not actually available for purposes of the Digital Opportunity Data Collection in any area where the filer does not meet this standard.

The new requirements are limited to fixed broadband providers, those that offer non-mobile service in homes and businesses. The FCC didn’t impose new requirements on mobile providers because it hasn’t finished its investigation into complaints that Verizon and T-Mobile lied about the extent of their 4G coverage. But the FCC is seeking public comment on how to incorporate mobile coverage into the new mapping system.

The FCC is also seeking public comment on additional ways to improve the data collection and on the possibility of sunsetting the Form 477 program after the new “Digital Opportunity Data Collection” mapping program is created. That would require an additional rulemaking process and vote. For now, Form 477 data collection will continue separately from the new form of data collection.

“To ensure the reliability of these new maps, we’ll be incorporating feedback from the public as well as state, local, and tribal governments,” Pai said before today’s vote. “We’re also seeking comment on a framework for identifying where Americans live and work with greater precision, which will work in conjunction with the broadband-deployment data collection we adopt today.”

Deadlines for ISPs to submit maps have not yet been announced.

FCC Democrats criticize lack of pricing data

Pai’s plan got some criticism from Democratic FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks. Rosenworcel said that the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), which administers the FCC’s universal service programs, “has never done a data collection of this magnitude.”

“The decision to hand off this mammoth undertaking to the administrator of universal service funds does not make sense,” Rosenworcel said. “What is the logic behind saddling USAC with these tasks?… How will they [be held] accountable to the public?”

Rosenworcel also faulted Pai for not collecting data about the price of broadband. “If we want a truly accurate picture of broadband service across the country we are setting ourselves up for problems by not even asking how price and affordability plays a role,” she said. “Here’s the thing: it plays a big one.”

The high price of broadband has likely caused many Americans to forgo service entirely or to purchase packages with sub-broadband speeds. The FCC’s latest numbers suggest that 21.3 million Americans lack access to fixed broadband with speeds of at least 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up. But a Microsoft analysis found that 162.8 million Americans do not use the Internet at broadband speeds. Just because broadband is available to a resident doesn’t mean the resident can afford it.

Starks said that Pai’s plan “is only a nudge in the right direction,” and questioned whether the FCC will ensure the accuracy of ISP submissions.

“Are we validating and verifying the data we collect? As we learned from BarrierFree, more must be done to vet and validate data anomalies,” Starks said. “For us to be confident in the outputs of our data analysis and the resulting decisions, we must be confident in the accuracy and validity of the data we receive.”

Pai’s plan gets praise from frequent critic

Still, the FCC plan won praise from one of Pai’s fiercest critics, namely Free Press. The group said the FCC should also collect broadband-pricing information but found plenty to like in the FCC order.

“The new Digital Opportunity Data Collection process should address the most common complaint about past agency mapping efforts: the potential for overstating deployment in certain rural areas,” Free Press Research Director Derek Turner said today. “Free Press has long called for better broadband deployment data from the FCC, and we’re cautiously optimistic that today’s reforms will enhance accuracy while maintaining the public’s full access to this critical information.”

Turner previously worried that the FCC’s new system would make it harder for outside researchers like himself to analyze ISP submissions. But he said his concerns were mostly addressed in the plan the FCC approved today.

“Though this change may produce better data on rural deployment, the new plan wisely recognizes the need to show this improvement before the agency scraps the previous reporting system,” Turner said. “The plan also retains the current census block-level reporting methodology and full public dissemination of that information. Maintaining the existing methodology will ensure that researchers and advocates can continue using the FCC’s deployment data in conjunction with the census’ demographic information. That lets us and other researchers monitor deployment in low-income communities over time and track other important changes.”

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