- Around 42 million U.S. residents lacked access to broadband internet in 2020, which is triple the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) latest estimate, according to new research released this week.
- A report from internet plans comparison and research firm BroadbandNow found the federal government's estimate of 14.5 million U.S. residents lacking broadband access is inadequate. The company manually checked the availability of terrestrial broadband internet for more than 110,000 addresses across all 48 contiguous states with 11 internet service providers (ISPs). It then analyzed that information against data the FCC collects on its mandated Form 477 to see the discrepancies between what ISPs tell customers and the government.
- BroadbandNow also found that the FCC has overreported the deployment of every technology that provides internet access, including cable, fiber and fixed wireless. It said the FCC overreports the availability of cable by 17%, fiber by 23% and fixed wireless by 35%.
The FCC's broadband mapping has been the subject of severe criticism for years, including from members of the commission who have said it is inadequate and not reflective of the true picture of broadband internet deployment. According to the FCC's mapping system, an entire census block has broadband service, which it defines as 25 Megabytes per second (Mbps) download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed, if just one household in that block receives broadband internet with those speeds.
Lawmakers tried to introduce a legislative fix to what they agreed is a deeply flawed mapping process with the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, signed into law in March 2020 by former President Trump. It is designed to improve the granularity of data collected for broadband mapping, although some in Congress are concerned about the time it will take to implement.
A more granular approach to data collection on broadband deployment is necessary to try and build a more accurate picture of internet availability, according to Tyler Cooper, BroadbandNow's editor in chief.
"I think the overarching solution here is to push toward address-level granularity," Cooper said. "That data exists, it’s not like it doesn't exist today. If you call providers, they can, as we found, specifically tell you if they can service your house or not. It's just something that has never been mandated by the FCC to be released in their datasets. The data is out there, it just needs to be put to better use."
In response to the report, an FCC spokesperson acknowledged the flaws in the federal government's broadband mapping data, but said it is working to address the issues and produce better information.
"While the FCC's current data show the number of Americans with no access to broadband at 25/3 is about 14 million, this figure likely understates the digital divide," the spokesperson said in an email. "At the direction of the acting chairwoman, the FCC is working on a major effort to update its broadband data collection and mapping with the goal of building more precise estimates of broadband access."
Cooper said the "biggest surprise" has been that the process of collecting data on broadband availability has not been overhauled in a number of years. Acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel moved quickly to establish a Broadband Data Task Force in February to get a handle on the problem and propose solutions. But Cooper said while he is "cautiously optimistic," it may take a while before there are real changes given how data intensive the work is.
With the FCC at the forefront of distributing millions of dollars across the country to close the digital divide and Congress looking to make similar investments, Cooper said having accurate data is the best way to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent in the most impactful places.
"We have these massive funding initiatives like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, where accuracy is pretty important when it comes to figuring out where we want to spend those billions of dollars when it comes to expanding broadband to underserved and unserved areas," he said. "We want to make sure that those spots are truly unserved and [the money to invest in broadband is] actually going to the people who need broadband the most."
Cooper also said the time is right for the federal government to increase its baseline for what defines broadband internet speeds. That need has been keenly displayed during the coronavirus pandemic, which placed an enormous strain on internet bandwidth and has shown how internet uses have evolved since the standard was set in 2015.
"We really have one without the other, because we need to not only measure this more granularly, but we also need to take into account the shifting needs of the American public, when it comes to broadband," Cooper said. "I'm of the opinion that the current standard… is really no longer a reflection of the average needs and use cases for the internet today."