Of the many hotly debated political topics right now, broadband internet expansion likely isn’t the first issue to spring to mind, but it is a battleground.
Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel recently revealed that the new FCC maps released in November plotting broadband access in the U.S. received 1.1 million complaints from state and local governments about their accuracy. A bipartisan group of 26 senators wrote a letter expressing similar concerns in December.
These maps will decide how $42 billion in broadband access grants will be allocated. Their inaccuracies raise concerns about the inefficiency that has long permeated the FCC. Fixing the maps is a necessary first step toward increasing broadband access nationwide.
According to a University of Kansas study, FCC maps plotting broadband access are misleading, in part because they are based on maximum advertised speeds instead of average performance. This leads to significant overestimations of coverage.
For instance, the FCC estimated 85.8 percent of Kansans live in areas with a 100+ Mbps download speed. In contrast, the University of Kansas survey estimated the number to be only 43.5 percent. Overestimation also occurs because if one home in a census block — the smallest geographical area used by the Census Bureau to collect data — gets internet, the entire area is considered served. A reliance on internet service providers for data, who have historically overestimated their coverage, also creates accuracy issues.
Before any infrastructure is put down, the FCC needs to analyze the accuracy of its mapmaking. Much of the information needed for improved analysis can come from strengthening the power of public challenge.
Starting in November, members of the public ranging from residents to city, county and other local government officials have been able to lodge challenges based on the inaccuracy of maps — such as missing areas of need and the flexibility and strength of service. FCC staff receive the challenges and communicate them to the internet service providers that provided the data, after which the challenge is denied or accepted with change.
However, these challenges were due January 13 — two months after the maps were released. That’s a quick turnaround when collecting enough data to challenge the maps. Extending the time that cities, counties and residents can submit challenges to their maps by just 90 days gives people more voice and catches more errors.
Reforms should also be made to the tools used to collect the data presented in these challenges. Speed tests that measure internet strength can only challenge mobile services, not fixed ones. Making speed tests that can challenge all services will also contribute to the reduction in overestimations of coverage.
When errors in the FCC maps fall through the cracks, communities that need internet are left in the dark. Reforms must also be made to the structure of data collection. Specifically, a census block shouldn’t be counted as having internet until the vast majority, if not everyone, has access to it — not just one person.
Further, the FCC map reflects the maximum advertised speed instead of the average speed. This is problematic because it judges internet service by its best possible performance, not what the consumer encounters daily. Having a burst of high-speed internet for a few seconds a day is overshadowed if the rest of the time the connection is slow. Ultimately, more accurate definitions of coverage ensure that consumers aren’t being cheated out of the internet expansion for which they qualify.
A variety of other reforms, such as reducing duplicative network expansion, or more thorough auditing of internet service providers that have received funding yet aren’t seeing significant broadband expansion, would help. Similarly, consolidating the 133 federal programs across 15 agencies that invested $44 billion in expanding broadband access between 2015 and 2020 could lead to more efficiency. But the real change has to come from restructuring the federal government’s broadband strategy to be more efficient and cohesive so that billions more don’t get wasted while millions are left without a connection to a digital society.