High-speed internet is not really available where the government says it is. And that misinformation means that a lot of Americans, especially those in poor and rural areas, can’t get access to broadband — a service that is becoming more and more integral to daily life in the US.
The Federal Communications Commission, the government body charged with overseeing internet connectivity, among other things, uses data that is self-reported by the internet service providers. Even if we assume that these ISPs are reporting accurately, what they’re required to report isn’t very helpful. And bad data means that federal money isn’t being spent where it should be to build out broadband access.
ISPs have to report whether a census block — an imprecise geographic area that ranges from a tenth of a mile to 8,500 miles and can contain anywhere from zero to 600 people — has access to “advertised” broadband download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, the minimum requirement to be considered broadband.
A whole census block is considered “served” if broadband service is available anywhere within it. So even if it’s impossible to get internet in your home or business, your area could be marked off as having 100 percent availability because someone hundreds of miles away is connected. Even broadband wiring that passes next to your home is no guarantee there can be internet in your home.
“It’s like having a faucet that doesn’t work,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively on US broadband issues.
It’s important to note that access is not the same as use.
Even if you can get broadband in your home, the speeds you’re receiving might not be as fast as advertised. If you’re subscribed to a plan advertised as 25 Mbps, there’s a good chance that it’s actually slower, and you’re not even technically using broadband. Additionally, internet plans can be prohibitively expensive — even in rural areas — effectively preventing many poorer Americans from using it.
“Currently in the US, the focus is upon physical infrastructure, not upon people choosing to subscribe or being able to subscribe,” said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit advocating for national broadband access.
In essence, the government data is measuring areas in which an internet connection could exist rather than where it is.
As you can see from the map below, FCC data shows that most counties have high rates of broadband availability:
But having availability does not mean that people are actually getting to use it. Broadband usage data from Microsoft — which was released late last year and is based on anonymous data the company collected on how fast its products were actually being used and updated — paints a much bleaker picture. It shows that most counties in America are without high levels of broadband usage:
Microsoft’s data says 163 million peopledon’t use high-speed internet in the US, while the FCC estimates that it’s not available to 25 million Americans. That’s a difference of 138 million people — more than a third of the US population.
What’s most troubling is that the FCC uses this data to help make internet policy decisions and to help allocate $4.6 billion in subsidies and funding each year to correct the country’s rural connectivity gaps.
“There’s a lot of money tied to this data,” said Kathryn de Wit, manager of the broadband research initiative for Pew Charitable Trusts. “If a community is considered served, in many cases they’re no longer eligible to receive funding. If you have an inaccurate picture of what connectivity looks like at the block level, you may be passing over communities that really do need connectivity.”
Recently, Pew hosted a talk with broadband industry leaders and policymakers to discuss better metrics for assessing broadband in the future.
At the event, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel summed up the issue succinctly: “We cannot manage what we do not measure.”
And broadband has become increasingly important: People now depend on it for everything from making a living to obtaining Medicaid coverage. Schoolchildren and small businesses alike need high-speed internet to complete their tasks and to compete in the wider world. Those without proper internet access are already missing vital information about the world around them.
Additionally, insufficient broadband access is much more common in poor and rural areas — ones already suffering from a host of other inequities that make people in those areas prime candidates for automation and, by extension, increased future inequality. Already, there is a digital divide in America between those who can and can’t access the tools that will govern our future success. Broadband stands to exacerbate that divide.
Why would the FCC use flawed availability data to make decisions in the first place?
“This is a data program that is woefully underfunded,” Tomer said. “That’s why we see a structure that relies on self-reported data from the very companies that have incentive to suggest they’re covering as many households as possible.” A better program would cost more to administer……Read more>>