After a meeting voting to end net neutrality, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai smiles while listening to a question from a reporter in Washington.
Photo: Jacquelyn Martin / AP

You know what they say, tens of millions of broadband users here, tens of millions of broadband users there, sooner or later it starts to add up to something.

On Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission released its annual Broadband Deployment Report declaring that the digital divide—the gulf between Americans who have high-speed internet access and those who don’t—has “significantly narrowed.” This is thanks, it says, to the deregulatory efforts of the agency’s Republican leadership. And that’s precisely what a version of the report said months ago, prior to its release, when it still contained heaps of critically inaccurate data that had somehow gone unaddressed for more than a year.

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In the year since the last report, it states, the number of Americans without fixed access to a wired connection of at least 25 Mbps (download) has dropped from 26.1 million in 2016 to 21.3 million by the end of the following year, a decreased of more than 18 percent. “With this compelling evidence before us, we find, for a second consecutive year, that advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis,” it says.

The report, which the agency is required to release, is meant to determine whether “advanced telecommunications capabilities” are being deployed to all Americans in a “reasonable and timely fashion.” If that’s found to be the case, no further action is required on the agency’s part. A negative report, however, requires the agency to take what is vaguely described as “immediate action” to removing barriers to infrastructure investment and promote “competition in the telecommunications market.”

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The FCC is, in other words, charged with filling out its own report card. Only a bad grade necessitates a shift in its operation.

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The rosy claims of the GOP-controlled commission regarding the state of broadband access in the U.S. drew immediate criticism from the left. Its method for acquiring its data has long been viewed as inherently flawed. The system is overly simplistic and enables internet providers, purposely or not, to conceal large gaps in their coverage.

Providers can claim high-speed access is being served to hundreds or thousands of people residing in a single census block provided that a single person in that block “could” obtain access. These census blocks, of which there are more than 11 million in the U.S., may be smaller than a tenth of a square mile, as more than half of them are, or include several thousand miles of land, as is the case in sparsely populated areas of Alaska.

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Census blocks, which are created by the U.S. Census Bureau, can contain between 600 and 3,000 people, or between 240 and 1,200 housing units. Only a single person (or housing units) needs to have the capability of accessing high-speed internet for a provider to claim the block is covered.

This method is particularly problematic when it comes to census blocks in rural areas that span thousands of miles. Here, only a few of the residents may actually have access to what the commission considers “advanced telecommunications capabilities.”

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In December 2017, Barrier Free, a broadband provider based in New York, made an incredible claim: Although in June 2017 the company wasn’t serving a single census block, months later claimed to be serving nearly 1.5 million blocks, or roughly 62 million people. This obvious error would go unnoticed for more than a year. In fact, Ajit Pai, the FCC’s chairman, took a victory lap this February, declaring a “25 percent drop in Americans lacking access to fixed broadband.” Unfortunately, Barrier Free’s erroneous data was baked into the numbers upon which Pai based his claim.

The advocate group Free Press began to crunch the numbers, which even on their face seemed wildly imprecise. In March, the group submitted its findings to the FCC, but for months after, the commission made no effort to correct Pai’s dubious claims. By that time, the chairman’s office had already circulated a draft version of the broadband deployment report released Wednesday.

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According to FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, a Democrat, the faulty draft remained in circulation for months. No effort was made to retract it. In fact, two months passed before a corrected version surfaced. As opposed to 19.4 million Americans lacking broadband access, the agency now calculates the number is closer to 21.3 million. To put it another way, the 25 percent drop was closer to 18 percent. But “surprisingly,” Starks wrote on Wednesday, the report nevertheless reached an identical conclusion. “In fact,” he said, “very little in the report changed.”

“It’s incredible to me that an error this large—approximately 62 million in overstated broadband connections—didn’t materially change the report,” he said.

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Starks continued:

The fact that a 2019 Broadband Deployment Report with an error of over 62 million connections was circulated to the full Commission raises serious questions. Was the Chairman’s office aware of the errors when it circulated the draft report? If not, why didn’t an “outlier” detection function raise alarms with regard to Barrier Free? Also, once the report was corrected, the fact that such a large number of connections came out of the report’s underlying data without changing the report’s conclusion, and without resulting in a substantial charge to the report, calls into question the extent to which the report and its conclusions depend on and flow from data.

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“These issues go to the core nature of the Deployment Report, and more broadly, our FCC mission—to determine where broadband service is and is not deployed, and being grounded in and led by the actual facts and data,” he said.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel likewise noted the FCC’s use of erroneous data in her dissenting remarks on Wednesday. “This report deserves a failing grade,” she said. “It concludes that broadband deployment is reasonable and timely throughout the United States. This will come as news to millions and millions of Americans who lack access to high-speed service at home.”

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Rosenworcel goes on to highlight an industry report, published by Microsoft last year, which came to a remarkably different conclusion. According to the company’s figures, as many as 162 million Americans are currently accessing the internet at speeds below 25 Mbps, the commission’s current benchmark.

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Sources at the FCC tell Gizmodo that its employees have yet to rally around Microsoft’s methodology. In part, that’s because the agency itself will never possess the technology needed to replicate the study. Only a handful of tech companies in the country—those capable of amassing large amounts of anonymized data on the speeds with which internet users across the country access its services—could.

“Adding insult to injury, the same flawed data we rely on here is used to populate FCC broadband maps,” Rosenworcel added. “For those keeping track, one cabinet official has described those maps as ‘fake news’ and one Senator has suggested they be shredded and thrown into a lake.”

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But flawed maps and erroneous data aren’t the only reason to be suspicious of the agency’s findings. As opposed to Microsoft’s figures, which were reached by analyzing the connection speeds of actual internet users, the FCC’s alleged 18 percent drop in Americans without broadband access is, by definition, purely hypothetical. The government form filled out by the companies merely asks if the providers are capable of serving customers in those areas. This leaves room for ISPs to say broadband access is available in areas even if no one is actually using it. (Or to put it another way, even if the people living there can’t afford it.)

This results, Starks said in his dissent, in data containing an “indistinguishable jumble of census blocks where service is actually and hypothetically available.”

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“I wouldn’t want a system where the expert agency for communications is only empowered to take action based on this finding where the numbers are way off,” said Matt Wood, vice president of policy at Free Press. “We can talk about the mapping inaccuracies, the speed thresholds, but the other failure at the FCC over the last decade and more is not collecting pricing data.”

“This annual fight we have over whether broadband is being timely deployed is really missing that affordability component and sometimes missing the actual digital divide, despite what some people want to say,” he said. “No, it’s not actually a thing of the past. It’s based on income, and that’s still where we see the biggest divide.”

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Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly on Wednesday said he supported the report’s findings and added that it fulfilled the commission’s requirements, as mandated by Congress.

“To be clear,” he said, “according to our data collection, which has been rightfully criticized, approximately nine million Americans still lack access to even 10/1 Mbps service, and our finding here does not deny that point.”

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The agency’s mandate, O’Rielly noted, is not to determine whether all Americans actually have access to high-speed internet, but merely whether progress in that direction is being made at a “reasonable and timely pace.”

That the commission has attained that goal, he said, “is completely consistent with the facts on the ground.

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Update, 10:20pm: Microsoft, whose report is cited in this article, sent Gizmodo the following statement, attributed to its chief data analytics officer, John Kahan:

“We share the FCC’s commitment to closing the digital divide in rural America, but we have concerns that this report continues to rely on inaccurate coverage data. There is strong evidence, including the FCC’s own subscription data and Microsoft data, that broadband is not available to millions of people in America even though the FCC’s data says it is. We hope that, moving forward, the FCC adopts appropriate solutions as we’ve previously outlined to improve the accuracy of broadband mapping so the country can more quickly close the digital divide.”

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