FCC claims on broadband access under scrutiny

Anna Moneymaker

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is being scrutinized over its claims that its deregulatory agenda has led to record gains in the private sector’s efforts to expand access to high-speed internet in rural and underserved communities.

Internet players, watchdogs and lawmakers are calling for changes to how the agency collects data on broadband access and makes policy.

{mosads}In February, Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai circulated a draft of the agency’s annual progress report on broadband deployment. He touted data showing that the number of Americans without access to broadband fell by more than 25 percent and that a record number of homes had received new fiber connections in 2017.

The release said the report found the private sector has been deploying broadband on a “reasonable and timely basis” and attributed the progress to Pai’s efforts to roll back regulations on the industry.

“This report shows that our approach is working,” Pai said in a statement when the draft was circulated. “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 broadband mapping data is a crucial measure, used to determine where federal dollars can be best spent to improve access. But Pai also used the positive numbers as evidence that the private sector was boosted by his deregulatory efforts, which included the repeal of the Obama-era net neutrality rules that passed at the end of 2017 and went into effect last year.

Pai’s conclusions and the numbers that he based them on quickly came under scrutiny.

“This is just not credible. Studies show that 162 million Americans do not use the internet at broadband speeds,” Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement to The Hill.

“The simple fact is that the FCC needs to come clean about its numbers — serious questions have been raised about the FCC’s data that demand answers.”

In a filing to the FCC last week, Microsoft said it found that the “broadband availability data … appears to overstate the extent to which broadband is actually available throughout the nation.

{mosads}“For example, in some areas the Commission’s broadband availability data suggests that Internet Service Providers have reported significant broadband availability while Microsoft’s usage data indicates that only a small percentage of consumers actually access the Internet at broadband speeds in those areas.”

The consumer group Free Press submitted a filing to the FCC identifying what it said were significant reporting errors from a broadband carrier called BarrierFree.

According to Free Press’s filing, the company massively overstated its coverage by mistakenly reporting that it covered the entirety of all eight states in which it operated — a claim that purported to show that BarrierFree, a relatively new company, offered service in areas home to nearly 62 million people.

In an emailed statement to The Hill, Jim Gerbig, BarrierFree’s chief operating officer, acknowledged that the company had made errors in its filings to the FCC.

“A portion of the submission was parsed incorrectly in the upload process,” Gerbig said. “With the government shutdown in January, we were unable to submit revised documents before the full report went live.”

“We are working with the FCC to improve our 477 data for the most recent and future filings, and expect to have it resolved soon,” he added, referring to the name of the form used to submit coverage data.

Free Press said that the error misstates the number of people who were newly connected in 2017 by about 2 million. The FCC said the number of people without broadband access fell to 19.4 million in 2017 from 26.1 million the year before.

Free Press said the correct number for 2017 is actually 21.3 million. The group said it was an improvement, but not significant enough to support Pai’s claims deregulation prompted a significant jump.

“What we think we’ve shown is that there isn’t any change in the trajectory” since the Obama administration, said Matt Wood, the vice president and policy counsel at Free Press. “You see technology improving over time, as we’d expect, you see investment and service improving.”

The FCC was not immediately able to comment.

For Pai, the controversy strikes at one of his FCC’s chief objectives: expanding high-speed internet access to the millions of still-unconnected Americans.

Critics say that the problems with the FCC’s broadband mapping efforts go far beyond overreporting errors. The agency requires internet service providers to merely list census blocks where their service is available. If one person in a large rural census block has access to a carrier’s offerings, then the company can list that area as covered.

Many argue the information collected on that basis is unreliable in determining who needs access and where the FCC should allocate billions of dollars in subsidies to help spur

“That’s so flawed as to be almost worthless,” said Gigi Sohn, a former adviser at the FCC under the Obama administration.

Pai has acknowledged problems with the FCC’s data and has asked for public input into how to approve the methodology it uses, citing the importance of accurate broadband maps.

But Sohn says that any effort to improve federal data will run into pushback from the private sector as it has in the past.

“The reason the companies like the status quo is because it lets them hide behind phony numbers so that we don’t actually see how many Americans don’t have broadband and how many Americans don’t have competition,” she said.

“The more the data overstate the number of competitors and the number of people who have broadband,” she said, “the better the industry looks good.”

Pressure to rework how the FCC obtains its data and how it addresses the issue is growing.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would require the FCC to begin the process of creating better maps that would include crowdsourced data and information from local and state governments.

The bill was introduced by Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.), as well as Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a 2020 contender.

Industry groups have also announced a new effort to provide more granular data about who has access to broadband and where.

But industry critics see it as too little too late and are skeptical of any program directed from the private sector.

“This is not really rocket science, but it’s turned into a rocket science experiment,” Sohn said. “They know where their customers are. Why can’t they put that on the map?”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Joe Manchin John Hoeven Shelley Moore Capito

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