US regulator knowingly uses inaccurate data to apportion US$16 billion broadband cash

via Flickr © Chris Potter (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © Chris Potter (CC BY 2.0)

  • For years on end carriers have been allowed to provide unverified broadband access data
  • It is to their advantage to supply exaggerated figures
  • Now $16 billion will be dispersed based on discredited data
  • New data collection law in place but not applied 

The wondrous institution that is the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is at it again. The Board of Commissioners of that august and supposedly rational body has just unanimously voted knowingly to use unreliable and unverified data supplied by telcos to determine who gets what of the US$16 billion bucks that are up for grabs under the Broadband Expansion Funding programme.

The FCC, founded back in 1934, is the venerable independent agency of the US government responsible for the regulation of the nation's wireline and wireless telecoms, television, radio, satellite, cable and ISP services. It is directed by five commissioners who are appointed by the US president and confirmed to post by the Senate for five-year terms. The president also designates a commissioner to serve as chairperson. Three commissioners may be members of the same political party and no commissioner is allowed to have any financial interest in any FCC-related business.

As a sitting president always designates a member of his own party to chair the FCC, the political bent of the organisation changes according to whether the Democrats or Republicans are in power at any particular time and so too does the voting of the Commission. Currently there are three Republican Commissioners: Michael O'Reilley of New York, Brendan Carr of Virginia and Ajit Pai of Kansas, who is the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners. The two Democrat members are Jeffrey Starks of Kansas and Jessica Rosenworcel of Connecticut.

The FCC is overseeing a ten-year, $20.4 billion programme designed to subsidise the deployment of broadband technologies in unserved and underserved areas of the US . They are predominantly in rural and remote areas. Interested parties are in competition to bring broadband to six million homes and businesses in those areas that remain on the far side of the digital divide.

Carriers are marking their own homework. Guess what? They get nice gold stars

The $16 billion in question is the first phase of funding with the balance of $4.4 billion due to be allocated at some yet to be decided time in the future when "more precise" location data will be made available. In other words the disbursement of the $16 billion will be based on location data that is known to be inaccurate. Since 2018 the FCC has been responsible for mapping broadband access across the US. But the data being used to determine where to invest in broadband is also as incomplete as it is inaccurate.

That's because the regulator uses an outmoded and historically inaccurate methodology to collect the data. It uses "census block" measurement whereby if a given census block has reported that just one home or business premises has broadband access within it, the entire census block, which may comprise hundreds or even thousands of premises, is designated as being fully served by broadband. 

To make matters worse, the data is "self-reported" by telcos, ISPs and carriers. The data they provide is not, and has never been, independently verified by anyone outside the the un-transparent ivory towers of the FCC itself. In other words the network operators are marking their own homework. It is very much in their interest to exaggerate the extent of broadband penetration coverage areas and they have been known to be doing so for years.

Last year the FCC brought in "Digital Opportunity Data Collection" (DODC) in reference to the collection of fixed broadband data. DODC requires broadband service providers to provide verifiable geospatial broadband coverage maps showing where fixed broadband service is available at a very much more granular level. DODC also permits individual members of the public to report whether or not they actually are in receipt of broadband services, regardless of what the ISPs and networks operators claim. After all, a business or family knows whether it has broadband or not! 

However, DODC figures have not been used to determine the distribution of the $16 billion of broadband funding now on offer. Critics, and there are many of them, say it would have been better by far to delay disbursement of the funds until DODC mapping is completed. This, they say, without apparent irony, would reduce the the potential for what is euphemistically referred to as "duplicative funding" and would help ensure that money for broadband will get to the communities that need it the most

Meanwhile, some Congressional politicians are pressing to ensure that the FCC’s "Fixed Broadband Deployment Map" be continually updated to ensure the data shows continuing network changes. At the moment is it a rarely updated historical snapshot of the way things were, not as they are.

The day after the FCC vote thirteen Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the Democratic majority on the panel to provide the FCC with the funding it apparently needs by backing the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act. This is a piece of  legislation enacted to compel the regulator forthwith to apply new data collection rules and a new verification regime and to provide updated broadband coverage maps. Showing the reality of broadband penetration will certainly not coincide with what the carriers have been telling the FCC. Meanwhile, for whatever reason the regulator continues to drag its heavy and slow-moving feet. 

Interestingly, Commissioner Rosenworcel, despite having voted to distribute the $16 billion first trance of cash despite its dispersal being based on inaccurate data, said that the rush to get the cash out there is "a fatal flaw" in the strategy to close the digital divide. She also said that the application of a small-print rule that will stop 28 states accessing federal broadband money because of extant broadband expansion programmes is in "blatant disregard" of the FCC's responsibility to increase broadband access across the entire country.

She added, “We should be encouraging states to work with us and not penalising them for their efforts to bring broadband to communities that are struggling. We have this exactly backwards." 

Oh yes! Look! There's the FCC horse pushing the tumbril with that nice Mr Pai in it up 12 Street SW again. One day maybe they'll put Dobbin at the front, where he's supposed to be.

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