In Our View: FCC Making Improvements to Data Collection But Not There Yet

Welcome to In Our View, a new series here at MuniNetworks. From time to time, we'll use this space to explore new ideas and share our thoughts on recent events playing out across the digital landscape, as well as take the opportunity to draw attention to important but neglected broadband-related issues.

Special thank you to ILSR Data and Visualization Researcher Michelle Andrews for noticing the Michigan discrepancy, and for her contributions to this piece.

Earlier this month, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) released updated Form 477 data, the primary source of information used for the FCC’s broadband coverage maps and the basis upon which federal agencies and states make major funding decisions.

With new interim leadership from FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel – who has been well-aware of the FCC’s dubious track record of publishing imprecise, insufficient, and often inaccurate broadband coverage data – you will be disappointed if you were expecting any improvements in the newest data set. 

Filers had until March 26, 2021 to make revisions to data that was submitted by September 1, 2020 for service they provided as of June 30, 2020. When the updated data was first released on April 7, it indicated that nearly the entire state of Michigan had access to 10 Gbps (Gigabit per second) broadband, thanks to Form 477 data provided by Strategic Alliance CDC (see map below, or a high-resolution version here).

Historical Error Repeats Itself

That data has been since scrubbed, probably as someone at the FCC belatedly realized that couldn’t possibly be correct. There are only a relative handful of communities in the entire country where residents have access to 10-gigabit connections (many are municipal networks). For every resident in any state to have access to such high-speed Internet connectivity would be major broadband news shouted from the rooftops of every elected official, economic development board member, and tourism official in the state. But alas, Michigan, which does contain geographical pockets of high-quality Internet access, most definitely does not have statewide 10 gig connectivity.

This latest Form 477 faux pas is reminiscent of an error contained in the FCC’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report, which reported that nearly 62 million people in eight states had access to near gig-speed Fiber-to-the-Home and fixed wireless service. That information was based on the first-time 477 filing of the northeast-based Internet Service Provider BarrierFree. When Free Press, a media and technology advocacy organization, submitted comments to the FCC pointing out that BarrierFree had “grossly misreported its deployment,” it prompted BarrierFree COO Jim Gerbig to release a statement acknowledging that the ISP had made “an error in the Form 477 filings … (that) doesn’t reflect our current level of broadband deployment,” adding that a government shut-down prevented the company from correcting the misleading information.

In fairness to small to midsized ISPs, the online filing of Form 477 is not a quick and easy process. ISPs are required to submit census block data, and the document on how to properly file the form is 39 pages long. The big ISPs have the resources and staff to make the process far less cumbersome than it is for smaller ISPs.

As noted above, the process for submitting 477 data to the FCC and releasing it publicly takes about a year, give or take. But if the FCC is incapable of catching gross errors that suggest massive swings in the data like the stunning emergence of the first 10-gig state, what is the FCC doing during that time? To work, markets require information and collecting that information is among the most basic tasks of an agency like the FCC. Making it friendly to ISPs to share that information should be the next order of business. 

In addition and for reasons unknown to us, this most recent data dump does not include any maximum advertised download and upload information about business services.

The data about residential broadband coverage remains publically available, though it still lacks some of the granular data critics of the FCC have harped on for years now, the kind of detailed data and transparency called for in the proposed Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act: clear pricing information and rules to verify the accuracy of the data self-reported by ISPs.

Incremental Improvements

None of this is to say that the FCC, now under the leadership of Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, isn’t working to improve the FCC’s broadband data collection. In February, Rosenworcel announced the establishment of a new Broadband Data Task Force, charged with leading “a cross-agency effort to collect detailed data and develop more precise maps about broadband availability.”

The new task force is working to develop a fabric for the new broadband data collection - a way to collect all the information listing addresses that can then be compared to where service is available and translate that into whether any given home has access. But this approach seems destined to be proprietary - not open for public inspection and correction. That would be fine if the FCC and its consultants never made mistakes. But we have concerns about who can inspect this information and suggest changes.

In a recent interview on our Community Broadband Bits podcast Jonathan Chambers, a partner at Conexon and former Chief of the FCC’s Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis, pointed to the lack of transparency as it relates to the cost models the FCC uses to calculate subsidy amounts.

“The FCC developed a couple of cost models, which are useful tools,” he said. However, “you can't get access to their models (and) you don't want to use public tools that are not publicly accessible. If you're spending public money based on a private model and a private map you're making a mistake. That really needs to be fixed. It also shouldn't take a year to do all of this.”

At issue is the complexity of estimating the costs to build networks. When the FCC makes errors, who can spot them and who can fix them? Given the number of errors the FCC routinely makes around broadband issues, this is not an exercise in nit-picking. 

A month after the announcement of the new FCC Broadband Data Task Force, Rosenworcel said in order to close the gap between the “digital haves and have nots,” the FCC needed “to start with accurate broadband maps. But the ones this agency has used in the past are not up to the task. They didn’t get the job done.”

She went on to give an overview of how the FCC was getting “A Running Start on New Broadband Maps,” noting that in addition to the creation of the Broadband Data Task Force, the FCC was adding new “tools and talent” to create better “public-facing portals that can support the new Broadband Data Collection data” and had issued a Request for Information to create “a common dataset of all locations in the United States where fixed broadband [I]nternet access service can be installed.”

That was followed up with the unveiling of an online form that “provides a way for consumers to share their broadband experiences.” And then most recently, the FCC created a new speed test mobile app that the public can use to test their mobile and wireless in-home broadband connection. The data gleaned from those speed tests will help the FCC more precisely determine “where broadband is truly available throughout the United States.”

New Rule: Change the Public Reporting Process?

But even as the FCC seems to be making progress toward eventually improving the FCC mapping system, broadband expert and President of CCG Consulting Doug Dawson notes the FCC still needs to change the mapping rules issued in January as one of the last acts of the previous FCC Chairman Ajit Pai “because the current rules don’t let the public provide any worthwhile input to the mapping data.”

While the current rules do provide for a challenge process, Dawson points out:

“A consumer claiming slow broadband will see no change to the FCC map. The January rules allow ISPs to continue to claim marketing speeds in the new FCC mapping system. A rural ISP can continue to claim ‘up to 25/3 Mbps’ for an area with barely functioning broadband as long as the ISP advertises the faster up-to speed.

“The FCC needs to change the rules established in the January Docket or they are going to witness a rural revolt," he continued. "Consumers that are seeing broadband speeds that are barely faster than dial-up are going to flock to the new FCC reporting portal hoping for some change. Under the current rules, the FCC is going to side with the ISP that advertises speeds faster than it delivers.”

In the meantime, perhaps States should work with public interest groups and ISPs to develop open, transparent data collection that would be useful in evaluating areas that lack adequate service and the rough costs of building to those locations. They might have to if the FCC can’t drastically and quickly improve the quality of the broadband deployment data it publishes.