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A History of Form 477 and Broadband Mapping Data - Episode 487 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
On this week’s episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, Christopher Mitchell is joined by Derek Turner, the research director for Free Press, to talk about the history of the federal government's broadband data collection and how the Form 477 came to be. They unpack how this data collection process has been historically flawed and how it has evolved over the years. While the FCC continues to make adjustments to reporting procedures for Internet Service Providers, there have always been flaws, leaving communities unconnected or unserved.
Listen to CBB Episode 484 to learn more about the potential pitfalls in the newest changes to the FCC's data collection.
This show is 40 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Derek Turner: Garbage in garbage out. Is their reporting going to be any better? It's always on the ISPs to report accurately.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I am Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Saint Paul, Minnesota. And today, I'm returning to a guest that we spoke with, seems like 20 years ago but it was actually two years ago, Derek Turner, the Research Director for Free Press. Welcome back to the show.
Derek Turner: Oh, it's so good to be here. And it's so true, this past two years, I guess going on now is one big blur. So, I'm happy to be back. There's certainly been a lot of developments in this topic and lots to talk about, for sure.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. And I think a lot of people are much more interested in how we got to where we are with mapping at the federal government. I feel like you can't talk to anyone, if you say the word mapping, there's like a race to figure out who's going to talk about the whole one house per block being served and this and that, but I think there's a more interesting history and there's also an assumption that it's going to get better. It might be hard to get worse, but I'm pretty skeptical about how excited we'll be in a year as to where we are with mapping. Anyway, I immediately thought of you, because whenever I talk with you about this stuff, I'm reminded that you know all of this stuff that happened, that for me, I barely even can recall. And you've made comments over the years in tons of these proceedings. So, love to just jump in, and we'll do that right after you remind us what Free Press is.
Derek Turner: Absolutely. So, Free Press is a national nonpartisan organization. We were founded to involve the public in media and telecommunications policy debates, where we felt that the public's voice was missing from a lot of these debates. A lot that were going on in D.C. were very insidery, and there was a lack of on the ground, local grassroots groups being involved in these conversations. And so, we were founded to act as a bridge between the grassroots and the national grass tops organizations and do both inside and outside lobby, and just trying to give a voice for the user of the Internet, the user and viewers and listeners of media in these policy debates.
Christopher Mitchell: And I feel like when people hear telecommunications, they think, oh, telephones, broadband, but you guys are interested in media ownership and a variety of ancillary topics that are important for democracy.
Derek Turner: Absolutely. One of our founders is Professor Bob McChesney, Champaign-Urbana. And one of the big things that he founded us for was just the failure of the media to do a good job in reporting in local communities and the influence of corporate media and influence of advertising based media, which is still a problem. I guess we're not that successful. But we quickly realized that one of the keys of fixing the media would be ubiquitous, open, affordable Internet access, because it would enable people, especially with open source technologies, to go around the traditional media gatekeepers. Now, I think today, we obviously find ourselves with a new generation of gatekeepers, though I'm still very positive on the potential of the Internet, because it does allow something like you and I to have this conversation and for people to then hear it without going through a traditional gatekeeper to produce and to distribute that information.
Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. And the last thing that I'll say about that is just that I'm very much persuaded by Yochai Benkler and others who would argue that it is the old gatekeepers that are often creating the problems on the newer media that's more decentralized. So if we just cut them off, we'd probably be better off on this new decentralized approach.
Derek Turner: So much in agreement with that. Sure.
Christopher Mitchell: So, 477 started in 2012 or so, right? We didn't have to worry about mapping before that. I'm just totally being facetious.
Derek Turner: I was about to say, hold on, we're going to have a step back here for a second.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. So mapping is an issue that I feel like... I think of you, Sascha Meinrath, and others who in the before times, we're like, if we don't get this right we're going to be having a lot of problems over the years. And I just feel like a lot of those claims that you all made have been proven out. So where would you start in terms of looking at mapping of broadband?
Derek Turner: I think it's probably best to start right around the time that congress was debating and enacting the 1996 Telecommunications Act because that really set the stage for this past 25 years of everything we've seen in the media and Internet space. And at the time, we had regulated phone companies and that model was largely failing and there was a big push to open up the markets to competition. Cable companies were very vocal about, hey, we can do two way services, let us get into the market and we'll bring lots of great things and we're happy to be regulated. And the telephone company is like, hey, we don't actually like being regulated, let us compete and we'll do all sorts of wonderful things. And their big promise was we will bring fiber everywhere. We'll upgrade all of our lines and everything will be great.
Derek Turner: I'm a little bit older than most folks perhaps, but I don't know if you remember these... You may have seen it on YouTube just as a retrospective, but there used to be this commercial from Quest and had this guy checking into a crappy rundown motel in the middle of a desert. And he like asked the clerk, do you have any movies? And the clerk looks up and she says, we have every movie ever made throughout history available. And then it was like a big fiber optic commercial. Right? So that was the promise. Those were the things that were being said inside. So the act did open up the markets to competition, but in particular, congress wanted to make sure that all these promises were going to be kept, right? So they implemented what's called... another three digit number, the 706 proceeding. And so that was where the FCC was supposed to monitor the reasonable and timely deployment of what it called advanced telecommunications capability. And obviously that definition's change over the years, but it just meant something faster than what you could get over dial up, right?
Christopher Mitchell: Right. And always on.
Derek Turner: There you go. Always on, you didn't have to connect with that annoying sounding mode and all that. Right. So they gave the FCC actually a long time to actually even start to do that proceeding. So fast forward to 1999, we got the first 706 proceeding and the data in that was based on just a voluntary survey they sent out to carriers. So the commission really quickly realized this is not going to work. So in 2000 they started and then issued an order that created form 477. And though broadband was included in that this was a different time where the primary thrust of it was local telephone competition. They really wanted to monitor how local telephone markets were changing. So that was largely the thrust of it. But basically what that did, which perhaps to the people at the time, I hadn't yet been in the field yet. It seemed adequate to them, but it was quickly proved to be an echo.
Derek Turner: What they did was say, okay, at the state level, all the carriers need to report... And I'll just talk about broadband from here... Report the number of subscribers they had. That's it. And then they also say, give us a list of zip codes where you offer service. And zip codes at the time, there was some debate about what would that be adequate? Some folks like the American Library Association said, hey, this is probably not going to be granular enough you need to do something different. The carriers of course, pushed back and they wanted state level and that's it. And so the FCC did say zip codes. And then they said, okay, we don't understand. We don't want to create a burden on you, carrier. So we assume that you have billing databases with zip codes in them. If you send someone a bill you're in that area. So the problem was is that they counted a zip code as covered if there was at least one subscriber in the zip code and we sort of get this later.
Derek Turner: But zip codes are insanely variable geographies. They can vary from a few... like one or no people. Some zip codes are like literally PO boxes... To tens of thousands, if not to a 100,000 people. So these are very huge geographies, and it's just meaningless to say the area's covered if it's a zip code. The other thing was they only required providers who had 250 or more subscribers in a state to report. And that didn't sound like a big deal, but there were a lot of rural telephone companies that were funded with universal service money... were rolling out broadband and they were completely missed. And so when the SEC in 2004 changed the methodology to say, all right, everybody's got report. It literally more than doubled the number of reported carriers. So that was at the start. 2004 they realized, this isn't working out so well. They had to come back in 2004 because the initial data collection was only going to be for five years, it was going to expire and that was going to be it. So they came back and they made some marginal improvements to it.
Derek Turner: They started actually asking, hey, tell us your subscribers at the state level by speed tier. Before it was just, do you offer something above 200 kilos per second or not? Now it was, okay, tell us the number of subscribers in the state level between 200 kilobits and two and a half megs, two and a half megs and 10, so on and so forth. It was quite monumental at the time because this is something you wanted to look at. Like, okay, broadband is one thing but is it really broadband or is it this slow stuff that's not making any progress?
Christopher Mitchell: I don't know what the actual numbers were, but also for people who are quite younger... I think a lot of people were on the Internet at this time. This is not like the late nineties. I remember like a lot of people... Like blogs were taken off. You have a lot of commentary about George W. Bush, the Iraq War. I feel like probably half of Americans were online probably.
Derek Turner: That's exactly right. At that time, we hit about half of American households were online. It was a couple of years later, I think 2007 maybe... Then half the people were technically on broadband because dial up was the thing and then it kind of went away pretty quickly once broadband was a little bit more available. They also implemented a couple of other metrics. And this is one little sidebar that shows you how it's sort of ridiculous and how much the SEC bends over backwards for the carriers. They said, okay, look, we don't really have an availability... So there's availability, there's competition data. There's a number of subscribers, which you could use to say how competitive is a given area and there's a sheer availability. Is it there or not? So from 4 77 deals with both and both are important, but they had nothing on availability at that point. The zip code methodology, they realized wasn't the greatest for availability. So they said, hey, telephone companies at the state level, tell us the percent of your telephone lines that are also DSL enabled.
Derek Turner: Cable companies tell us the percent of your cable TV lines that are also cable modem enabled and we'll report a percentage at the state level. So that was an improvement. We could look and rank states, but to show you how ridiculous the FCC is, 17 of those states had incomplete data where they would redact that percentage at the state level, because they said it was competitively sensitive. I don't know how to reverse engineer something like that. You can tell me that there's 65 percent of the DSL... Or phone lines or DSL enabled in Rhode Island. I don't know what to do with that information like as a competitor at what... Anyway. So kind of ridiculous like that.
Christopher Mitchell: Also, the ridiculous about that is like their competitors probably all know, right? Like not only do they know each other, but presumably as like a lineman or a switches companies, probably some of them in the companies like, hey, give us a little information about that other company you're coming from. So they all know this, but like they...
Derek Turner: They absolutely know it.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah.
Derek Turner: Investment community knows it because they do channel checks. They do all kind of things. So this is it's the SEC.
Christopher Mitchell: It's just us who doesn't know it.
Derek Turner: You're right. It's a stereotype. But the commission is a captured agency. You look, you study regulatory capture in grad school and like they're the first case study, right? It's notorious. So I started working on this in 2005 when I was in grad school. Prior to that, I had a career as a medicinal chemist. So I come at this as a scientist, as a data guy and I immediately look at this and I just say, hold on a second because what just immediately stuck out to me, is that... And I'm, this is a common phrase people heard is, lying with this statistics. So that summer of 2005, we got this thing that you probably talked about on your podcast before the Brand X decision. That was where the Supreme court said, okay, we agree with the FCCs decision in 2002, that cable modem is not a telecommunication service regulated under title two. It's an information service, just like any other website. That decision came down...
Christopher Mitchell: With a notable dissent from Scalia.
Derek Turner: Exactly.
Derek Turner: The people can feel however they want about him, but I do think you should go read his dissent because he talks about offering pizza delivery. Anyway, don't want to get sidetracked. So the then FCC chair, Kevin Martin had this very big op-ed in the Wall Street Journal where he was just, our policies are great, because he was then putting out an order to do the same reclassification to DSL service. And then take that out of all the legal protections that come with title two and shove it in title one where they couldn't do anything. And so op-ed was centered around how great the US is. And he said things like, there's fierce competition and to back that up, he cited the FCCs zip code data. And this is how ridiculous zip code data is. At the time, it said nearly 70 percent of zip codes had four or more ISPs offering service. And here we are in the year 2021, I still only have two.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Derek Turner: And certainly at the time I was lucky to have two, right? It was your DSL or telephone companies service or your cable company service and nothing changed. So it was a duopoly. We all know that. That was like, so he's lying with statistics. And so I saw that and I was like, well, hold on a second this is garbage. So we started looking into it. We put out a report that summer. We put out another report the next summer. It got a lot more attention. The AP covered it. Martin to his credit invited me to his office. I'd only been in DC at that time for a few months and he brought me into his office and he's like, all right, I hear your critique. What do you want to do about it? And there was such a snowballing effect after that point that congress directed GAO to write a report on why the FCCs data is getting all this critique. And they came out in early 2007, slammed it.
Derek Turner: So Martin to his credit, he said, okay, we're going to fix this and he put in a room with AT&T and there was a long debate. They launched to proceed in 2007, we narrowed down on the contours of the debate in 2008. The industry's always been very reluctant to do anything. So the fact that he was basically chess piecing and saying, if you want this AT&T you got to do something on this. It was back and forth. It ended up where they did make some very important reforms in 2008. And the most notably, they said, zip code methodology, get out of here. Carriers now have to report the number of subscribers they have at the census track level. We wanted address level. We wanted the most granular we can get. Certainly we wanted something more granular than census track, but it was an improvement because before it was state levels, we're down there. The key to that is though... Again, this is on the competition side. If I know the number of subscribers by the carrier, I can then calculate what's called market share.
Derek Turner: And if I look at a given area and say, okay, this area technically has two providers available, but one of them has 90 percent of the customers. That's not a competitive market. There's going to be issues there. I wanted the FCC to collect pricing data so that I could combine that and do classic antitrust analysis. But that's a story for another day. So that was an improvement. They punted however, on the issue of availability data. Martin to his credit, his notice said, we think we should collect this at the address level, but we're going to ask more questions. Well, then the election happens, the economy collapses and congress then says, okay, we want a national broadband plan and we want a national broadband map. They gave it to NTIA and said, here, go make a national map. You may recall the time there was a lot of hype around this project called Connect Kentucky. They were the first to come to the DC and put up these really fancy looking maps and say...
Christopher Mitchell: They had solved it.
Derek Turner: We did it.
Christopher Mitchell: That's why Kentucky has such amazing Internet access now.
Derek Turner: Right. We solved the problem. Kentucky and AT&T stayed...
Christopher Mitchell: And it just so happened that Connect Kentucky's board... Interestingly enough, they probably had trouble filling it out, but it was AT&T, AT&T's friends and AT&T's suppliers.
Derek Turner: A hundred percent. So they were the darlings of DC at the time they had... I'm from the south so I get to say this, their representative had a little bit of an accent and all shucks kind of thing. And when the NTA got the mandate to do these maps, this national map, the way the law was written and the way they interpreted it was, okay, each state collects the data using their own methodology and they give it back to us and we'll produce a map. Now, we were just throwing up our hands there, because you can't have 50 different methodologies. It just doesn't work. And it was a waste of money.
Christopher Mitchell: And we talk about how the states aren't well organized on broadband today. You can imagine what it was like then.
Derek Turner: A couple things to the NTA's credit, so they at least were able to set some the standards for the reporting level. And so again, we were saying, hey, address level, give it to us. But the more I actually dug into this and actually talked to carriers... Some carriers are just their databases are terrible and so some would be able to do address level well, some wouldn't, some people get the bill sent somewhere they don't actually live. So I'm a demographer. I'm a data guy. I want this availability data, not just so I can have a pretty map to look at. Obviously, maps are incredibly important for people on the ground, but I also wanted the information so I could say, okay, are we seeing more deployment in certain areas? Areas that are heavily people of color or are they getting less good service? Are they getting less deployment? How does income impact this? I wanted to be able to combine that with census data and do that kind of work.
Derek Turner: So to their credit NTA said, okay, we'll do census blocks. And the carriers [inaudible 00:17:43]... They eventually said, okay. Also to their credit, NTA understood this issue that plagues the FCCs maps of if it's a census block in a rural area, you can be in the top corner and the block itself can be literally a hundred square miles and only have the top corner served and yet everybody who's outside of that top corner shows up as being served. NTA understood that and said, okay, for geographically large census block, you have to not just report the block you have to port the road segment. This is another even more granular census level. So they produced their maps. It helped, I think the lack of money to spend on deployment, ultimately the maps they sort of as a tool run out unless you've got people wanting to spend money in these rural areas, you don't see a lot of follow through. But after that, none of this went away.
Derek Turner: The NTA had their maps funded for about three years and then it back to the FCC. And the FCC wasn't certain whether they're going to do anything. And then to their credit FCC says, okay, we'll take it back. We'll do this. And again, this was something that states literally got hundreds of millions of dollars to build. FCC said, we'll just require you to report availability at the census block level to us as a part of form 477. So that's when we got form 477 maps at the FCC. Not to their credit though, the FCC said, we don't want to burden carriers with this whole road block segment reporting. We'll just do if you're in a census block, you serve one person there you're good. You got one deployment there. You're good. The other thing they did that was terrible. And wasn't fixed until recently, they basically said not, hey, carrier, tell us where you offer service. It's tell us where you could offer service.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Derek Turner: And it was used using very vague language within a service interval that is typical for that type of connection. So that just led to a bunch of over reporting in particular, on the part of fixed wireless providers. But also the competition side of it was totally distorted by what are called CLEX, competitive local exchange carriers. These are companies that can legally be the communications that come in and lease the local telephone equipment from the local telephone incumbent. And they were basically just claiming everywhere that they... Yeah. Okay. We could technically purchase a circuit and offer service there, whether they had these subscribers. So that would then lead to these situations where you'd look at an area and you'd see three or more providers and you'd know it's a duopoly. And so recently the FCC heat keeps coming on, congress keeps getting mad. And then finally in 2019, started to fix this part of it a little bit, where they changed that reporting standard to a within 10 days, you could do it. It didn't really change much.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. We just did this transparency report in which we're trying to figure out like which ISPs say that. And so we wanted to have a neutral standard for which ISPs we reported on. So we decided to pick the ISPs that were the largest in a bunch of segments and the wireless ISPs, that claim to be the largest via those reporting, several of them have infinitesimal user bases. They're like, oh, yeah, we're in front of 120 million homes or I guess more like 60 million homes. And you're like, yeah, but you have 20,000 subscribers. Like you guys must suck.
Derek Turner: Right. When that ratio is so out of whack, it's a big red flag. It's very frustrating because the commission knows this. And during Chairman [Pie's 00:20:58] tenure, he puts out a report saying, wow, look at how much fiber deployment has grown under my tenure. You know this well because your group found this as well basically at the same time I did. When you look at the maps and you look at like, wait, the largest provider in the United States is this company called Barrier Free, who I've never heard of. And so we called that out and FCC pulled by their maps. They did an investigation and finally find Barrier Free a few years later. But if you go back and track the timeline of it, they were going after Barrier Free and saying, something's wrong in your data, please fix it. And they just didn't. The Commission's Bureau knew that and they still went ahead and put out a bogus report based on that data. So garbage in, garbage out.
Christopher Mitchell: And so people are aware. It's not just that all of a sudden Barrier Free was like we're everywhere. We were working in Pennsylvania on a project at that time and all of a sudden the new data dumped and we're like, wait a minute, Barrier Free can offer a gigabit to every home in Pennsylvania in 10 days?
Derek Turner: Wow.
Christopher Mitchell: This is remarkable. These guys, again, they could take over the planet if they can do that.
Derek Turner: Yeah. A little fixed wireless provider, like on a small part of Fire Island or somewhere off New York, right?
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. It's just incredibly frustrating. I did want to say one thing. I didn't want to interrupt your...
Derek Turner: No, I [crosstalk 00:22:16] basically we're caught up now. The conclusion of the story is congress finally got involved again. We're going to get new maps. I'm not very confident that the new maps will be any better than the old maps, because basically the main change is instead of submitting a list of census blocks, they're submitting the actual maps that like the GS [crosstalk 00:22:34] ordinance of... The shape files, right. Of where they offer service. But that's actually how they could have been submitting the information on. It's not like some ISBs know their census block they're in. They actually use a conversion tool to convert their shape files in the blocks and then submit that list. So it's garbage and garbage out. Is their reporting going to be any better? It's always on the ISPs to report accurately. The other part of it is the denominator so knowing where the households are and businesses are, that are in a given area so that the map itself has some meaning to it in terms of percentages.
Derek Turner: The Georgia map that's come out in year and a half ago, get a lot of praise because it shows more holes. And so it's automatically assumed to be better than the FCCs map. But I literally spent like five minutes looking at that and I'm from Georgia and I looked at the Atlanta area and the Atlanta airport shows up as having no service on the Georgia map. So again, just because it's different than the FCCs map, doesn't make it better. Remains to be seen how good these maps will or won't be, but it's important to get it right, because we're now about to spend 40 something billion dollars on broadband.
Christopher Mitchell: That's probably right. If you called up a provider and said that you needed a residential circuit turned on in the Sky Lounge, they would not be able to do it. So it's technically accurate, perhaps.
Derek Turner: Correct. But it's like big hole in there and it's not just the airport itself, it's the area surrounding it. [crosstalk 00:23:53] And it's important though, because the FCCs reporting does break data down by residents, but it's for residents and businesses. So it's not just residential. Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: Do the carriers themselves know where they can deliver service? I feel like the answer is complicated in that for the DSL, they don't... They themselves, if you put a gun to their head and said, tell me, can you deliver 20 megabits to this address? They would honestly have to say, I don't know, because they don't have a record and they don't know what the condition of the line is. It's a bit of a mess there. They don't know where those copper runs are. And this is one of the issues I think people don't understand is like, there's this mythos like AT&T is amazing. It made all these investments that built this wonderful network. It bought a bunch of networks and it's more true of the cable companies than the telephone companies but they bought companies that had incomplete or incorrect records or no records and they try to like put it all together. And the people who built those networks have all retired or moved on. Nobody has any idea really how a lot of this stuff holds together.
Christopher Mitchell: And so frankly, I think Comcast does a remarkable job for how reliable they are. It gives you a little bit of sense of why Charters as bad as they are and some of those other companies, the cable companies, but they literally barely know themselves what they can do because their records are pretty poor is my read on it.
Derek Turner: You just criticized Charter. They're my carrier. So hopefully they're not listening and drop my connection right now. Please, please don't hurt me, Charter. No, that's absolutely right. A lot of people sort of accept the current as the way things always been but that's not the case. There's been so much consolidation in both the telephone and cable industries. Cable industry, particular, this used to be a very ma and pa small system business and it's been zipped up over the past 25, 30 years to quite a remarkable level to where Comcast and Charter are almost the entire country. Right? And then there's everybody else other than them out... About 80, 90% of the country is Comcast and Charter in terms of cable. Yeah. They don't have their act together. Now, I think they have incentive increasingly to have their act together because this is now a very mature market in terms of, we don't have the latest data out of post pandemic yet...
Derek Turner: I should say... I always feel guilty when I say post pandemic since we're still in the middle of it. I mean the beginning of the pandemic and the heavy lockdown phase of it, where there was a big pull forward in people adopting broadband at home because they had to have it, right? So we're probably at maybe 85, 90 percent of households have some form of broadband fixed or mobile at this point. And it's a maturing business that people are both willing to pay for and obviously, the carers are willing to make money off it. So it's in their best interest not only to know that, but now there's money on the table. Right? And like you have major companies out there saying, this is a part of our business plan going forward is to compete for some of this money. This is going to be done at the state level. So I'm really uncertain about how this is going to turn out.
Derek Turner: You may have some states that already have like a state broadband office they've been working towards understanding where their holes are and what's needed, not just in terms of last mile, but also middle mile, connecting whatever you build. If you build fiber optic in the middle of nowhere and you have to connect it to an old copper line, it's not like you've done a lot to help people there. So some states will probably be better than others, but ultimately, they're at the mercy of good information. So I'm hoping what happens is maps are viewed as a starting point, trust foot verified kind of thing. Okay, this is an area where looks like it... Let's actually send somebody out there and do some taps on the lines and look for what's going on, open up the local boxes and see if rats have infested the copper. There's things that they can do to be sure.
Christopher Mitchell: This is one of my main problems with 477, and I don't really understand how it works. And I don't want to insult anyone at the FCC because I think a lot of people at the FCC hear us insulting and [inaudible 00:27:51] look, I'm just trying to do my job. I do what I'm told and the problem is with the decision makers. I do have this idea that there's someone at the FCC who gets a hard drive full of 477 data, walks into a room, puts it on a shelf and like a year later comes back, grabs it and is like, oh, it's time to release this. Because it doesn't seem like they spend a lot of time error checking it or like doing anything else. And I'm always sort of like, well, why does it take so long to get to us after it's submitted if there's not robust error checking on it and whatnot?
Derek Turner: No, that's incredibly important. And it actually raises in my mind, one thing I kind of glossed over, but want to revisit is form 477 isn't just a tool to say, where is broadband and where is it? Remember the beginning of this was competition, right? It's actually a tool for years that could have been used to accurately measure how competitive things are. And so we pointed out a long time ago to the FCC, hey, Kevin Martin made this change in 2008. This is during the Janikowski year so probably around like 2010, 2011. You guys have made this change to the data. It's incredibly valuable data. You're not actually using it to discuss competition at all. The national broadband plan came to the same conclusion and said, hey, you should do this and also you should let third party researchers come in and look at the raw, confidential data. They can sign all the legal agreements that you need them to sign. I work on mergers, so I've signed all kind of confidentiality agreements. It works.
Derek Turner: And so let, let third party researchers in, let academics, let bozos like me come in with some expertise and do some cool analysis with this data. And I'll sign whatever you need me to sign. I'm not in DC anymore, but I've worked with data where I literally had to go into the Commission's Library. I could not have any other electronic equipment. I could only like bring preloaded spreadsheets to work with. I'll do whatever, but I want someone to use this data. The FCC ignored the National Broadband Plans recommendation on that. And for years, they've just done nothing with the subscribership data in terms of looking at competition. In fact, what reminded me of this is you say how long it takes. They've been somewhat slow, but regularly issuing the updates to the availability data. I think the last update to the subscribership data was like 2018 or something. So it's been like, what happened to that data? You stop putting that out. It's somewhat useful, because it lets us look at how much of the market cable has versus DSL versus fiber versus fixed wireless. But they haven't been updating that for a while.
Derek Turner: Yes, I do have sympathy for someone who's literally entire organizational philosophy may change every 40 years with a new chair, but ultimately let us help you FCC. Let us outside researchers who... I'm not a mapping expert, but there's a lot of cool folks out there who have done a lot of cool things and know how to combine databases and different maps and can do... Let the community help you help the world help, help the country.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, let's talk about where we're going and I'm pessimistic in part because like... I don't know. I think Congress has... It's been like maybe two, three years. Is it two years? Three years since Congress basically said, six months, give us a good map. And a [inaudible 00:30:56] said, no, you didn't give me any money so I don't have to do it. And now Biden has said, I'm going to wait forever to nominate the people that are the most obvious nominees. And then who knows what's happening next and now they have very little time to do the things they need to do. So I'm despondent about any sort of hope of the FCC getting this right. But I feel like one issue is this garbage in garbage out. The FCC has refused to take seriously the idea that we should penalize companies that routinely make erroneous claims. That doesn't seem like it's something that FCC wants to do.
Christopher Mitchell: And now there's going to be a challenge process, which to me looks like it's just going to be more complication and muddiness. I don't really know what to expect. It's better than not having a challenge process, I guess. But let me ask, what are you looking for in terms of the next FCC with a full three, two seated... What are you expecting and what are you looking for to try and figure out if this is getting better or not?
Derek Turner: Well, I don't want to be a cynic, but I'm not even sure we're going to have a three, two FCC. I never thought that the Supreme Court would let a nominee go and... Or excuse me, the Senate would let a Supreme Court nominee never...
Christopher Mitchell: But it's okay because Briar's refusing to retire so we all understand that this is not political.
Derek Turner: Right? I want fully staffed agencies or whoever's in charge. I just need things to function and a two, two agency is a recipe for status quo and I don't actually think the status quo is very good right now. And if it's a different party in charge than it is now you deal with it, but you need agencies to function because they're designed to function.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Let's just pause for a second there because there's not a good party and a bad party. Right?
Derek Turner: Right. No, absolutely. I'm an independent. I'm not a registered of any party.
Christopher Mitchell: If you had to go back and decide like, am I going to spend four more years with Martin or four more years with Janikowski, I think you're going to pick the Republican [crosstalk 00:32:53] Yeah, exactly.
Derek Turner: Because he at least worked with his... He had somewhat thick skin and you could critique him and he wouldn't like isolate you. I can't say the same for Janikowski. So let's assume we do get a third vote. I do think that with the bipartisan nature of the Infrastructure Act and the sheer large amount of money and the pressure from the states, all the direction that's on the FCC to work with the NTAA, to work with the states, I do think they have a much more pressing incentive to get this right. The agency... I have a lot of respect for Commissioner Rosenworcel or Chair Rosenworcel, at this point. She, at the time in when the 2008 Broadband Data Improvement Act came out of Congress, which didn't fix all the problems, but it certainly did some good things. They're now annual states of the marketplace reports, annual 706 reports. They used to not be. They used to be just vaguely regularly. So they said do that. They said do international comparisons. They got the census bureau to start collecting much better survey data on adoption, which is incredibly useful. So I think she understands this.
Derek Turner: She's long been a critic of the FCCs... While she's been at FC of their data collection practices. I think the leadership there is solid. But ultimately, I think you hit the nail on the head that you need providers to understand that there is some teeth behind them not doing this correctly not what worked with them or the commission can work with them to get better. The states being involved I think will help them get better. But for example, I had a reporter... We get a lot of local reporters calling us up sometimes. I'm sure you do too. And this one called us up and I won't name where it was, but they basically said, hey, we don't have broadband in our town. And we're shown as covered, not only at the basic level of broadband, but we're shown as covered at a gig here, our entire town. Tell us what's going on. And I look at it and it's a fixed wireless provider that's basically claiming a swath, this like multi-county area.
Derek Turner: And I can barely find their website. They don't seem to be a legitimate carrier. And so that right away is a problem. Like if you need to change the reporting standard to fix that, do it. Or if you need to tell them, hey, you're not actually faith adhering to the standard we have, then fine them.
Christopher Mitchell: There's a consequence.
Derek Turner: Right? We've seen carriers come in and out of the data set. This was terrible for [Ardo 00:35:10]. We saw some carriers that were in the data set at the time that the final list of eligible blocks was determined and then they dropped out the data set after when the challenge process happened and they come back in. And so that leads to funding areas that don't need or not funding areas that do need it depending on when they were in and out of the data set. And that wasn't just one carrier that was a bunch of them. So some kind of quality control, I think is incredibly important. That maybe the commission doesn't have the resources to do it. I haven't been friends with anyone there in a long time, but I do notice that some parts of the staff are very overworked with all the stuff coming out they're having to stand up the affordable connectivity program, which is long overdue. They're having to do a proceeding on how all this money being spent impacts the future of USF.
Derek Turner: They got some really tight deadlines. Those deadlines are ruining my holiday that's about to come up. So they've got a lot of work to do, but it doesn't... So what? We all do. And so let's get this right, because I think this truly is a once in generation thing. Now, what happens if this money is misspent? I think people are going to be cynical and not want to come spend anymore. And so then what happens to those people in those areas who, no fault of their own, the bureaucrats failed them and they still don't have broadband. At this point, like I said a minute ago, 90 percent of households have it. Almost everywhere where you can get it people are subscribing to it and whether or not they can afford it, they're forgoing other things to try to get online. But those people who live in areas that don't have it they want it. People right now are doing things like making ends meet by renting out their house on Airbnb, in a rural area while they go take care of their mother in, in another state.
Derek Turner: And they can't do that if you can't attract somebody to that area, but you need Internet in that area for you to market yourself, but also for your guests to come, things like that. So the White House is getting serious about this. I have some doubts that things will be a lot better, but we're at least putting the resources behind it and hopeful it will get a lot better.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I think Airbnb may be requiring speed tests from hosts now or I don't know if I just heard a rumor about that because it's a major thing. People, they don't want to end up in a place where they don't don't have it.
Derek Turner: Oh yeah. Every now and then we... Especially during the pandemic, you feel a lot safer. Like if you're going to go camping... or not camping. If you're going out the wilderness with your kids and you rent an Airbnb that's [crosstalk 00:37:23]
Christopher Mitchell: I feel safer camping with Wi-Fi.
Derek Turner: I got to connect back home. I got to connect to the home office and still work or my kids want to watch whatever streaming shows they want to watch.
Christopher Mitchell: I camp in the Midwest. I camp during storms. I want to know if there's a thunderstorm cell coming through.
Derek Turner: A hundred percent, it's a public safety... It's an essential service. And I think that that's one of the things the pandemic has sort of taught policy makers in Washington that, hey, let's stop joking around. This is an essential service, just like electricity. We can't treat it any differently.
Christopher Mitchell: That's the thing that drives me nuts is like no one will disagree with that, but so few will act on it.
Derek Turner: Right.
Christopher Mitchell: It's just a talking point still. Well, this has been great. I look forward to when we see some action from the FCC, we'll bring you back on if you're available. If you're not [crosstalk 00:38:06]
Derek Turner: As your listeners, then you can tell I'm happy to go on and on and on and on about this topic.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, and I appreciate your leadership on it because the public interest community, a lot of us are specialized in different things and I feel like you all really keep your finger on the pulse of this stuff. I appreciate it.
Derek Turner: You guys have been doing great work. Your data work is just impeccable and I get jealous at how great it is.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh thanks.
Derek Turner: Yeah. You also keep up the good work for sure. You and your team, for sure.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at Muni Networks dot org slash Broadband Bits. Email us at podcast at Muni Networks dot org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles at community nets. Follow Muni Networks dot org stories on Twitter. It handles at Muni Networks. Subscribe to this and another podcast from ILSR, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules and The Composting For Community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives. If you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR dot org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.