Are the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Maps a Fantasy?

December 13, 2018 | by Andrew Regitsky

Are the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Maps a Fantasy?

The industry has had suspicions for a while that the maps depicting broadband deployment in the United States are simply not accurate. Under the current rules, every six months, broadband providers are required to file Form 477 with the FCC cataloging where they are providing broadband and at the speeds available. Many parties believe that the providers overstate the actual broadband speeds they provide, and the actual services are available in far fewer locations than claimed. Until now, the FCC has never tested the accuracy of the ISP-provided maps. But that is about to change. 

In a December 7, 2018 News Release, the Commission announced that it has begun an investigation into whether one or more major carriers violated the Mobility Fund Phase II (MF-II) reverse auction’s mapping rules and submitted incorrect coverage maps. The agency notes that it has taken this action because its preliminary review of the 20,809,503 speed tests filed by ISPs in connection with the MF-II challenge process found significant violations of its rules. The next step in the auction process has been suspended pending the results of the investigation.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai stated:

My top priority is bridging the digital divide and ensuring that Americans have access to digital opportunity regardless of where they live, and the FCC’s Mobility Fund Phase II program can play a key role in extending high-speed Internet access to rural areas across America...In order to reach those areas, it’s critical that we know where access is and where it is not. A preliminary review of speed test data submitted through the challenge process suggested significant violations of the Commission’s rules. That’s why I’ve ordered an investigation into these matters.  We must ensure that the data is accurate before we can proceed. (FCC December 7, 2018 News Release).

According to the FCC’s website:

Mobility Fund Phase II (MF-II) will make up to $4.53 billion in support available over 10 years to primarily rural areas that lack unsubsidized 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) service. MF-II is critically important to supporting mobile voice and broadband coverage, incentivizing the deployment of mobile wireless service through a reverse auction, and ensuring that 4G LTE service is preserved and advanced in those areas of the country that lack unsubsidized service.

Under the challenge process framework established by the Commission in the MF-II Challenge Process Order, mobile providers were required to submit current, standardized coverage data on qualified 4G LTE service. These data will be used, in conjunction with subsidy data from the Universal Service Administrative Company(USAC), to establish the map of areas presumptively eligible for MF-II support (initial eligible areas map). Interested parties will have an opportunity to challenge an initial determination that an area is ineligible for MF-II support, and challenged providers will then have an opportunity to respond to challenges. 

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr fully supports the investigation:

Chairman Pai’s decision to launch this investigation has my full support...Earlier this year, I said I would monitor how the maps align with consumers’ real-world experiences. Now that the challenge process has closed, the data provided confirm that Chairman Pai has made the right call. Throughout this process, I heard from providers serving the Oklahoma panhandle and communities across rural America. I spent time in small towns and rural counties in Mississippi, Nebraska, Colorado, and other states and heard firsthand the challenges that many Americans face in getting a high-speed, 4G LTE connection. It’s more than a frustrating inconvenience. It limits access to economic opportunity, to a 21st century education, and to high-quality telehealth applications. That’s why it’s so important to ensure the data underlying our broadband maps are accurate. It is deeply concerning that FCC staff’s preliminary analysis of the challenge data shows that one or more major carriers potentially violated the Commission’s MF-II mapping rules and submitted incorrect maps. Today’s announcement aligns with concerns I shared with Chairman Pai, and I look forward to working with him and our able staff to complete this investigation. (Brendan Carr, December 7, 2018vi Statement).

The fact that the Republican FCC commissioners are favoring this investigation suggests that the volley of criticisms the Commission has faced over broadband maps has finally hit home. Moreover, the violations must be egregious for the FCC to turn on large ISPs so suddenly.  It has been asserted for years that in many small cities and rural areas there is much less broadband availability than advertised. It is time the broadband claims of ISPs are put to the test.