Last week we noted how an FCC "oversight" hearing fell well short of anything actually resembling, well, actual oversight. Three FCC staffers had just been caught making up a DDOS attack and misleading Congress, the press and the FBI about it -- yet the subject was was barely even broached by lawmakers on either side of the aisle. It was another embarrassing example of the absence of anything resembling genuine accountability at the agency.
Fortunately one subject that did get a little attention was the FCC's comically-terrible broadband maps, something we've covered at great lengths here at Techdirt. If you want to see our terrible broadband maps at work, you need only go visit the FCC's $300+ million broadband availability map, which is based on the Form 477 data collected from ISPs. If you plug in your address, you'll find that not only does the FCC not include prices (at industry behest), the map hallucinates speed and ISP availability at most U.S. addresses.
For example, at my home in Seattle there's only one real ISP available: Comcast. But according to the FCC's data, I supposedly have seven broadband providers to choose from:
Three of those options (CenturyLink DSL, CenturyLink fiber, and Startouch Broadband) don't actually exist at my address, something I've confirmed with company engineers. Another three are satellite broadband providers, whose sky-high latency, high prices and daily or monthly usage caps make the services barely qualify as real broadband. That again leaves just Comcast as my only fixed line broadband option (aka a monopoly) in Seattle, supposedly one of the bigger tech-oriented cities in America. If you plug your address into the FCC's map you'll likely see similarly-misleading results.
As the FCC eyes where to deploy $4.5 billion in new rural broadband subsidies, more and more lawmakers are growing annoyed at the FCC's failure on this front. That includes Senator Jon Tester, who at last week's hearing proclaimed that the FCC's broadband maps "stink", and figuratively suggested that somebody (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) should have their "ass kicked" for the failure:
"We've got to kick somebody's ass," he told the chairman. Pai joked that the FCC would take that as a figurative, rather than literal, congressional directive. Tester aligned himself with Democrat Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel's comment that without good maps, a lot of money would be unnecessarily spent. Tester also said he was pleased Verizon was rolling out 5G in Indianapolis and other big markets, but said he was afraid they would never get it in Montana."
While hearing attendees giggled and chortled about this figurative ass kicking somebody was supposed to receive, nobody actually addressed why this has been a problem for the better part of the last two decades. The real reason our broadband maps remain terrible is that telecom monopolies would prefer the public and lawmakers not receive an accurate picture of American broadband, lest somebody notice the mammoth deployment gaps and the countless American markets that lack any meaningful broadband competition whatsoever (especially at faster speeds).
The source of the FCC's mapping data is the Form 477 data the agency collects from ISPs. This data has long been overly optimistic, and historically nobody really audits data provided by ISPs with a vested interest in downplaying deployment and competitive gaps. Worse, FCC policy dictates that the FCC deems an area "served" with broadband if just one ISP in a census tract has broadband. When somebody suggests that we should perhaps improve this data collection methodology, large ISPs like AT&T and Verizon pretty routinely lobby to prevent that from actually happening.
For example, when the previous, Wheeler-run FCC suggested we improve this methodology (pdf), Verizon complained in a filing (pdf) that more accurate data would be too costly and difficult for Verizon to adhere to:
"...the Commission must ensure that the costs of any new broadband data collection requirements do not outweigh the benefits. With respect to the Form 477, the Commission should avoid collecting data that is so detailed or voluminous that it is expensive for providers to produce, difficult for the Commission to process, or unhelpful to the public."
Again though, ISPs like Verizon aren't really worried about cost, the benefits to the public or how much work FCC staffers would have to do to process it, they're simply worried that if we had accurate broadband maps, somebody might realize that U.S. broadband is a terrible hodgepodge of barely-motivated monopolies abusing angry and captive customers. Accurate data would highlight how Verizon has all but given up on upgrading or repairing aging DSL in countless states, and pricing data specifically would show how Americans pay some of the highest prices for the slowest service among all developed nations.
Once Ajit Pai was appointed FCC head, efforts to shore up broadband mapping were quickly forgotten. And again, you'd think that somebody at last week's "oversight" hearing might have pointed this out. Instead, hearing attendees pretended that the United States' terrible broadband maps had simply mysteriously materialized out of the ether, a blameless phenomenon apparently caused by shadowy gremlins. In reality, it's long been abundantly clear why nobody wants to fix the problem: deep-pocketed ISPs by the name of Verizon, Comcast, Charter and AT&T don't want the problem fixed.
If more accurate data further highlighted the massive problems in the U.S. broadband market, somebody might just get the crazy idea to actually fix it, and we certainly wouldn't want that. Instead, for several decades now, the FCC and U.S. lawmakers have happily donned their ISP-provided rose-colored glasses, then played dumb when their real world experience doesn't quite add up.
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