To Claim the FCC’s Policies Are Closing The ‘Digital Divide’ . . .
We’ve noted repeatedly that despite a lot of breathless pearl clutching from U.S. leaders and regulators about the "digital divide," the United States doesn’t actually know where broadband is (or isn’t) available. Historically the FCC has simply trusted major ISPs to tell the truth, despite their a vested interest in downplaying coverage and competition gaps to maintain their domination.
That hasn’t worked out particularly well. From AT&T to Barrierfree, ISPs routinely like to overstate broadband availability by millions of households. Despite repeated warnings this data is flawed, the FCC continues to use it anyway to claim the agency’s industry-cozy policies (like gutting the lion’s share of consumer protections) are paying huge dividends. They aren’t. Like so many Trump agencies, the FCC is simply massaging data to justify predetermined industry-dictated policy positions. It’s theater dressed up as serious adult policy.
The FCC’s methodology has also long been flawed, considering entire census blocks to be connected if just one home in a block can potentially get service. The results are ugly: the FCC’s $350 million broadband availability map all but hallucinates broadband availability and speed (try it yourself). It also excludes prices, in large part because ISPs don’t want the cost of monopolization clearly outlined to American consumers, press, and lawmakers.
Despite repeated complaints (often by FCC Commissioners themselves), the FCC just keeps doubling down on shoddy data to justify its complete and total fealty to telecom giants. The agency’s latest notice of inquiry (part of its Congressional duty to report on the state of broadband once a year) even acknowledges the agency’s data is bad . . . and then proceeds to use it anyway and claim that kissing AT&T’s, Verizon’s, and Comcast’s asses is justifiable policy:
"More Americans than ever before now have access to the benefits of broadband as the Commission’s policies have created a regulatory environment to stimulate broadband investment and deployment."
Except, again, that’s simply not true. Despite repeated (almost weekly) lies by the Ajit Pai FCC that gutting oversight of telecom monopolies resulted in a massive investment boom, numerous studies (not to mention earnings reports, SEC filings, and public statements by executives) have made it clear that simply never happened. This being Trumpland, this sort of pattern of chronic lying apparently is no big deal.
But with 42 million Americans out of reach of any broadband during a health crisis, and an estimated 83 million more stuck under a broadband monopoly, it does matter. And, as telecom industry watcher Doug Dawson notes, this bad data is still being used to determine which areas receive grants and taxpayer subsidies:
"The idea of levying fines against ISPs for blatant broadband overreporting is long overdue. There can be huge consequences when ISPs can freely claim broadband coverage that doesn’t exist.
The biggest current consequence of such overreporting is that it can block eligibility for grants. The FCC used the faulty 477 data when determining the areas that are eligible for the $16.4 billion in RDOF grants that will be awarded in October. I know of counties where no RDOF grants are being offered due to the FCC data falsely showing counties to already have adequate broadband. There are many rural counties where at least some portion of the county has been incorrectly excluded from RDOF grant eligibility due to ISP overreporting of broadband speeds and coverage."
This stuff matters when work, health care, connectivity, and learning are all dependent on a reliable connection. It matters even more during an historic health crisis where broadband is now essential for survival.
We can’t fix a problem we refuse to accurately measure, and it’s abundantly clear to any objective observer that the Trump FCC doesn’t want an accurate read on the situation, lest the data clearly show that kissing monopoly ass isn’t akin to policy magic.