For years we've noted how the FCC's broadband availability maps are just comically bad. If you'd like to confirm that take, you can just plug your home address into the agency's $350 million broadband availability map and watch as entire ISPs and speed availability are largely hallucinated. This is a problem that never gets fixed, largely because the nation's entrenched broadband providers (and the politicians paid to love them) have a vested interest in pretending that the US broadband industry isn't just an aggressive hodge-podge of broken monopolies and duopolies nickel-and-diming the hell out of captive customers.
Senators have been bitching about the maps a little more lately as states vie for FCC Mobility Fund Phase II Auction subsidies, which will dole out $4.5 billion to under-connected states over the next decade. Back in August, Montana Senator Jon Tester went so far as to suggest that said maps "stink" and that somebody should have their "ass kicked" for the terrible data the FCC uses for both subsidies and policy.
Last Friday the Sisyphean quest to stop our maps from sucking turned an interesting corner, when the FCC announced (pdf) it was finally launching an investigation into whether "one or more" mobile carriers submitted false coverage data to the FCC. The FCC appears to be responding to a complaint (pdf) filed earlier this year by the Rural Wireless Association (RWA), which stated that Verizon was "grossly overstating" the company's 4G LTE broadband coverage in its filings with the FCC.
FCC boss Ajit Pai likes to talk a lot about how he's "closing the digital divide," despite the fact his policies (like killing net neutrality or weakening the very definition of the word "competition") generally tend to make problems of broadband availability and affordability worse. But the pressure coming from states as they clamor for their chunk of subsidies appears to have finally forced Pai (whose post-FCC political aspirations are fairly obvious) to take action:
"My top priority is bridging the digital divide and ensuring that Americans have access to digital opportunity regardless of where they live, and the FCC’s Mobility Fund Phase II program can play a key role in extending high-speed Internet access to rural areas across America,” said Chairman Pai. “In order to reach those areas, it’s critical that we know where access is and where it is not. A preliminary review of speed test data submitted through the challenge process suggested significant violations of the Commission’s rules. That’s why I’ve ordered an investigation into these matters. We must ensure that the data is accurate before we can proceed."
Those concerns were mirrored by Pai's fellow Commissioner Brendan Carr:
"It is deeply concerning that FCC staff's preliminary analysis of the challenge data shows that one or more major carriers potentially violated the Commission's MF-II mapping rules and submitted incorrect maps. Today's announcement aligns with concerns I shared with Chairman Pai, and I look forward to working with him and our able staff to complete this investigation."
A big part of the Mobility Fund Phase II subsidy process involves incumbent carriers like Verizon providing accurate broadband availability maps to determine which areas are in most dire need of subsidized help. But because companies like Verizon don't want to both advertise their network shortcomings or help drive funds to would-be competitors, they tend to overstate coverage of both mobile and fixed-line networks. Last August, Verizon denied to Ars Technica that its broadband availability data was inaccurate after the data was called a "sham" by the RWA.
This rose-colored glasses approach to broadband mapping is decades old, so any surprise you're hearing from government probably isn't all that authentic. As such, any applause should be held until actual action is taken and the companies involved are adequately punished (especially given Verizon used to be Pai's employer). Still, it's great to see Pai and the FCC at least pay some attention to a problem that has plagued the telecom sector for years, allowing it to paint an inaccurate picture of broadband availability and competition, thereby hampering any efforts to actually do something about it.