FCC’s Broadband Deployment “Success” Is an Illusion
March 14, 2019 | by Andrew Regitsky
On February 19, 2019, in a News Release trumpeting the draft of its latest Annual Broadband Report, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai couldn’t contain his enthusiasm for closing the “digital divide” in the country:
For the past two years, closing the digital divide has been the FCC’s top priority. We’ve been tackling this problem by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and providing efficient, effective support for rural broadband expansion through our Connect America Fund. This report shows that our approach is working. But we won’t rest until all Americans can have access to broadband and the 21st century opportunities it provides to communities everywhere.
The FCC’s “success stories” included:
Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection meeting the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps dropped by over 25%, from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017.
The number of Americans with access to 100 Mbps/10Mpbs fixed broadband increased by nearly 20% from 244.3 million to 290.9 million.
The number of Americans with access to 250 Mbps/50 Mbps fixed broadband grew by over 45%, to 205.2 million, and the number of rural Americans with access to such service more than doubled.
Based on this data, Pai concluded, “that advanced telecommunications services—broadband—is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis.”
Unfortunately for the Commission, a March 5, 2019 letter from the consumer advocate organization Free Press demonstrates that the FCC’s conclusions are almost certainly based on faulty data. Specifically, the national broadband deployment data is widely inflated, because, on its Form 477 report, one company claimed it provided broadband in every Census block in each of the eight states it operates in (20% of the US population), instead of the few Census blocks it actually offers broadband service. That company is the CLEC BarrierFree.
In other words, BarrierFree claimed to offer [Fiber-to-the-Home] service with downstream speeds of 940 Mbps to 100% of the geographic area and 100% of the population of New York State, and also to 100% of those seven other states. BarrierFree’s over-reporting in this manner not only produces wildly overinflated deployment claims for itself and these eight states: it also has a substantial impact on the putative change in deployment at the national level. Indeed, BarrierFree is claiming to be the only ISP offering service in 15% of all Census blocks that were listed as unserved in the June 2017 Form 477 data. (Docket 18-238, Free Press March 5, 2019 letter, at p. 2).
BarrierFree admits it was wrong, but that error has poked major holes in the FCC’s broadband deployment claims:
BarrierFree’s erroneous reporting is responsible for a substantial portion of this claimed decline in the unserved population. With BarrierFree removed from the data, the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection at the 25 Mbps/3 Mbps threshold declined to 21.3 million, not 19.4 million.
BarrierFree’s erroneous reporting is responsible for a substantial portion of this claimed improvement in rural deployment. Our analysis of the data without BarrierFree indicates that 6.4 million persons gained access to 25/3-level service, not the 8.6 million implicitly claimed by Chairman Pai. (Id., at p. 3.)
Now that BarrierFree has admitted its mistakes it’s unclear what the FCC’s response will be. The agency has yet to vote on its Broadband Report and it is not on the agenda of its upcoming March meeting. It is obvious, that based on the errors on the Form 477s filed by carriers deploying broadband and the overstatements seen in accompanying broadband maps, broadband deployment in the US is exaggerated. Will the Commission admit that its broadband deployment actions have not succeeded as hoped and work with the industry to produce better data and rules to spur deployment, or will it allow this charade to continue? We should find out in the next few weeks. In the meantime, all providers would be well served to ensure that the data they provide to the Commission regarding their broadband deployment going forward had best be accurate!