We’ve noted for decades how, despite all the political lip service paid toward “bridging the digital divide,” the U.S. doesn’t truly know where broadband is or isn’t available. The FCC’s past broadband maps, which cost $350 million to develop, have long been accused of all but hallucinating competitors, making up available speeds, and excluding a key metric of competitiveness: price.
You only need to spend a few minutes plugging your address into the FCC’s old map to notice how the agency comically overstates broadband competition and available speeds. After being mandated by Congress in 2020 by the Broadband DATA Act, the FCC struck a new, $44 million contract with a company named Costquest to develop a new map.
While an improvement, the new map still has problems with over-stating coverage and available speeds (try it for yourself). And the FCC still refuses to collect and share pricing data, which industry opposes because it would only work to further highlight monopolization, consolidation, and muted competition.
But there’s another problem. As broadband industry consultant Doug Dawson notes, the public doesn’t even own the finalized broadband mapping data. Costquest does:
“…the FCC gave CostQuest the ability to own the rights to the mapping fabric, which is the database that shows the location of every home and business in the country that is a potential broadband customer. This is a big deal because it means that CostQuest, a private company, controls the portal for data needed by the public to understand who has or doesn’t have broadband.”
In addition to the $44.9 million the FCC paid Costquest to create the maps, Costquest received another $49.9 million from the NTIA to provide the databases and maps for the $42 billion broadband subsidy and grant program (included in the 2021 infrastructure bill). Third parties (like states trying to shore up access to affordable broadband) have to pay Costquest even more money to access the data.
So it’s all been incredibly profitable for Costquest. But taxpayers are closing in on paying nearly half a billion dollars for broadband maps that not only still aren’t fully accurate, but which they can’t transparently access and don’t own despite paying for.
That’s fairly insane any way you slice it, and as Dawson notes, it’s a detriment to the cash-strapped folks who could be helping expand access to affordable broadband (and helping fact-check the data):
“Our industry is full of data geeks who could work wonders if they had free access to the mapping fabric database. There are citizen broadband committees and retired folks in every community who are willing to sift through the mapping data to understand broadband trends and to identify locations where ISPs have exaggerated coverage claims. But citizens willing to do this research are not going to pay the fees to get access to the data – and shouldn’t have to.”
For decades, feckless and corrupt state and federal regulators turned a blind eye as regional telecom monopolies dominated the market and crushed all competition underfoot, resulting in spotty access, high prices, and terrible customer service. Usually under the pretense that “deregulation” (read: very little real consumer protection oversight) had resulted in immense innovation.
Not only did government not address (or often even acknowledge) that problem, they’re still proving somewhat incapable when it comes to transparently mapping its impact.
The $42 billion in subsidies flowing to many states to shore up access is a good thing, but its impact will most assuredly be corrupted by feckless bureaucrats who can’t stand up to industry giants, aren’t keen on the idea of data transparency, and will lack the courage necessary to ensure giant monopolies with a history of fraud (like Comcast and AT&T) don’t pocket most of the funds.