To hear the Federal Communications Commission say, this is a golden age for broadband access in the United States. According to a newly released report of the agency on the digital divide, the gap between rural and urban internet access "has narrowed considerably and more Americans have access to high-speed broadband than ever before." Between the end of 2016 and the end of 2017, the number of Americans without broadband access dropped from around 26 million to around 21 million, the report said.
But experts and even some of the FCC commissioners say the report is flawed. The data on which they are based, they state, do not really capture what broadband looks like in rural America – leaving legislators and government officials with a twisted view of internet access.
The report is an annual release and started well before the Trump-appointed board of chairman Ajit Pai. But the 2019 version of the report has an unusual amount of political baggage and raises serious questions about the quality of the data used in the process.
Proponents of internet access and democratic commissioners at the FCC have already slammed the report. "Regardless of the reporting standard, the mission of the Commission is to close the digital divide," said Geoffrey Starks, the Democratic FCC, in a statement following the publication of the report. "And we need accurate information about the problem we are trying to solve and the progress we are making to resolve it to make effective, data-driven decisions."
To generate the report, the FCC relies on data from service providers. Using a form, the companies report on the census-derived "blocks" where they serve customers. Questions about the 2019 report started before it was even released: following a press release from the FCC that was broadcast in February, great progress was made in access, the non-profit organization Free Press noted a big mistake in the figures. A small carrier, called BarrierFree, mistakenly reported that it served census blocks with nearly 62 million people, making it the fourth largest internet provider in the country.
The FCC corrected the error prior to the release of the final report, reducing the number of people allegedly having access by around 2 million, but the fact that the error was discovered by Free Press raised questions about how closely the agency checked the data it received. The Starks statement challenged the figures. "It is unbelievable to me that an error so big – about 62 million in exaggerated broadband connections – did not substantially alter the report," he said.
But questions about the report go beyond any error. "Exaggeration is already ingrained in the system," says Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general advice at Free Press.
The census blocking system relies on data that only shows where providers can easily offer service, not where they actually do. If a company offers access to a customer in a census block, the entire block is also added to the count. Starks points out in his statement that some blocks are larger than 250 square miles.
The system is generally considered imperfect at best and the FCC has considered changes to the way it counts the data. Even the report itself admits that there are problems: the data & # 39; is not perfect & # 39 ;, he says, but adds that the & # 39; report is not a suitable vehicle & # 39; to consider changes.
Without accurate figures, the government cannot take targeted action to improve the circumstances. The figures, critics say, also give an exaggerated view of how hard the industry is working to connect customers who have long been confronted with obstacles to access.
Republican Commissioner Michael O & Rielly said in a statement that the report approved that the data was "rightly criticized", but that the trend was improving positively. Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel said the report "deserves an insufficient grade".
What could be more accurate broadband access numbers? Some point to a Microsoft survey that has calculated more than 162 million Americans who do not have broadband access – a significantly higher figure than the FCC. But it is hard to know what the figures can look like before the FCC requires companies to provide more detailed information.
The report is also responsible for determining whether broadband is used in a "reasonable and timely" manner. Under the previous democratic government, the FCC also used the census block data, but despite the increased access, it determined that it did not go fast enough. That finding changed under the Pai administration, which now says it is. Gigi Sohn – who worked as counsel to the previous chairman, Tom Wheeler – points to conditions imposed on the merger of AT & T and DirecTV, under the leadership of Wheeler, as an important reason for the profit.
But anyway, she says, the report is wrong to suggest that connecting America is fast and smooth. "We were not the ones who say that everything is peachy sharp," she says.