Why We Can't Forget Cost When Discussing Broadband Mapping

Weekly Article
New America
June 20, 2019

This article is part of an occasional series that highlights some of the big ideas New America has influenced over its 20-year history. Read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s introduction here.

After more than a decade of debate, the issue of improving the FCC’s broadband availability maps has been gaining traction on the Hill in the past few months—and with bipartisan support. Several bills on the topic have been introduced, and last week Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai announced that the agency will make changes to how it collects broadband availability data. The details of the eventual changes will be extremely important in deciphering whether this is a genuine step forward or just the adoption of weak industry proposals. In any case, consumer advocates, lawmakers, and internet service providers (ISPs) will be watching closely, as this fight stretches back over 10 years.

The outrage over the FCC’s inaccurate broadband data and map is warranted. The FCC’s current broadband availability data comes from disclosures that ISPs are required to make twice a year through Form 477. The form provides consistent and transparent data (a positive, for sure), but also has caveats that lead to drastically overstated deployment data. For instance, while ISPs are required to report where they provide broadband by census block, they can mark an entire census block as “served” by high-speed broadband if they’re capable of providing that service to just one location in the whole block.

The result? The FCC over-reports deployment, particularly in rural areas where the census blocks tend to be larger (sometimes hundreds of square miles in remote areas). ISPs are also required to report only where they could feasibly provide high-speed broadband, not where they actually do. In short, the FCC only receives information about where ISPs could theoretically provide broadband—but that’s not real coverage.

And yet, the problem with the current state of broadband mapping is bigger still. That’s because though improving deployment information is important, those figures only reflect one piece of the digital divide, and ignore another crucial piece of the puzzle: the cost of broadband service.

The Effort to Create Accurate Broadband Maps Goes Way Back

Accurately mapping broadband access and availability isn’t a new issue for the FCC. In 2009, public interest advocates—including New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI)—pressed the FCC to strengthen its understanding of broadband availability across the country. The FCC responded in its 2010 National Broadband Plan, which called for the government to, “Collect, analyze, benchmark and publish detailed, market-by-market information on broadband pricing and competition, which will likely have direct impact on competitive behavior (e.g., through benchmarking of pricing across geographic markets).”

In a move to address the lack of information on broadband availability, OTI hosted the Measurement Lab (M-Lab) from 2009 to 2019, before M-Lab spun out into its own entity. M-Lab allows users from around the world to test their internet speeds, and then analyzes that data to see what the median internet speeds are across the country. M-Lab also partners with various localities to help communities fact-check the advertised speeds of their ISPs. OTI has similarly worked to fill the void of actual data in the realm of pricing through a series of Cost of Connectivity reports that review how much American ISPs charge compared to other countries. The 2014 report found that consumers in the United States generally paid more than people in Asia and Europe for similar broadband services.

But despite a decade of planning, research, and advocacy, we’re still no closer to collecting and analyzing broadband pricing data, a move that would mark only a small first step toward actually solving the problem of cost.

Broadband Mapping Is Back in Style—But Pricing Ought to Be Part of the Conversation

So here we are, nine years following the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, having the discussion about broadband mapping once again. As policymakers grapple anew this endeavor, they can’t afford to leave out the collection of pricing data. Even so, the lack of legislation and FCC reforms on this point amid calls for improving broadband mapping is concerning.

For one thing, affordability is the biggest barrier to broadband adoption, yet is continually left out of the conversation about availability. For many Americans, this lack of focus on pricing data results in a flawed picture of access, hinders policymaking, and distorts funding decisions that could promote competition in their areas. Not only is the currently available data misleading for the government—it’s also misleading for the millions of Americans who live in areas where although a provider has deployed high-speed broadband, they don’t have effective access because the service costs too much. Should high-speed broadband be deemed “available” to that area if nobody can actually afford it?

We know a large portion of Americans can’t access broadband because it costs too much. According to the Pew Research Center’s latest numbers, only 56 percent of U.S. adults making less than $30,000 annually said they have broadband access at home, compared to 92 percent of those making $75,000 annually or more. Recently, the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure office found that for the 67 percent of households that didn’t have broadband access at home, cost was cited as the number one reason. While some studies have found that a significant number of Americans cite a lack of interest or necessity as the reason for not purchasing broadband, those studies also tend not to take into account how the price of a service can inform whether a person deems it necessary.

The affordability issue afflicts certain groups of people more than others. In particular, it harms historically marginalized communities and rural Americans. Pew’s latest study found that 79 percent of white adults report home broadband access compared to just 66 percent of black adults and 61 percent of Hispanic adults. Notably, while cost is a factor in this racial digital divide, the gap between white adults and black and Hispanic adults exists even among households with annual incomes under $20,000, according to a comprehensive study from the digital rights advocacy group Free Press.

Worse still, despite the importance of affordability to the FCC’s mission, the United States doesn’t currently have any reliable and consistent pricing information to analyze how prices differ depending on region, competition, and other factors. It also doesn’t have the ability to look at how pricing data affects adoption numbers, which means that it doesn’t have a crucial piece of data to understand whether the FCC is meeting its legal obligation of ensuring broadband access for all Americans.

Ten years on, the work to improve broadband mapping continues, and OTI and other organizations are pressuring the FCC to finally make important changes to the broadband availability data it collects, including the addition of broadband pricing data. Improving broadband maps is important. But any map that doesn’t take cost into account will only be looking at half the problem—and it’s about time we move from haphazardly diagnosing the problem to drafting solutions.