On Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission, the ghoulish specter of a disemboweled regulatory body, for a fleeting moment appeared before a House oversight committee as shadow of its former self. It produced: a report! The result of a year-long investigation, FCC field agents exposed mobile carriers’ sham claims of providing coverage to underserved areas; the FCC then took that information and promptly vanished.
Per the report, field agents drove through 12 states to conduct speed tests on Verizon, U.S. Cellular, and T-Mobile networks, finding that the companies had clearly fudged their coverage maps to exaggerate their networks’ reach. They report that only 62.3 percent of the drive tests reached the minimum download speed shown. “In addition,” they write, “staff was unable to obtain any 4G LTE signal for 38% of drive tests on U.S. Cellular’s network, 21.3% of drive tests on T-Mobile’s network, and 16.2% of drive tests on Verizon’s network, despite each provider reporting coverage in the relevant area.” (Emphasis mine.) As VICE reported yesterday, the FCC plans to do exactly zilch about the maps; FCC Chief of Staff Matthew Berry told reporters in a call that it would not be taking any action against companies for lying, intentionally or not.
In recent years, the FCC has embodied the image of gutted and hobbled government regulation under the Trump administration. Just a week after Trump promoted Chairman Ajit Pai to head the Commission, the FCC dropped a long-running campaign to cut outrageous phone costs for prisoners. Under his watch, the FCC has attempted to gut the nation’s only subsidy program to make internet accessible for 12.5 million low-income folks who qualify for food stamps and pilfered broadband subsidies from tribal residents, until it was stopped by a federal court of appeals. The FCC rolled back net neutrality. The FCC passively allowed cell carriers to sell location data for a whole year after news broke and is still dragging its feet on a lackadaisical probe. There is literally no good FCC news ever. EVER.
The report points out that “[o]verstating mobile broadband coverage misleads the public and can misallocate our limited universal service funds, and thus it must be met with meaningful consequences.”
The universal service funds are part of a historical subsidy program founded to increase telephone access for a variety of underserved communities; that includes both helping out low-income users with their bills, but also throwing money at telecoms to incentivize them to support service in high-cost (namely, rural) areas. (Unsurprisingly, billions flow freely to telecoms, while FCC Chairman Pai has been eyeing the less than $10 monthly stipend for poor people whom he accuses of “waste, fraud, and abuse.”) Overstating coverage can mean that the blackout zones which carriers falsely claim to serve don’t get infrastructure covered by “high-cost” subsidies. The maps might be off because the guidelines are flawed; then again, a carrier might inflate its coverage to fend off competitors.
So what’s the point of the report? In an oversight hearing yesterday, Representative Mike Doyle (D-PA) reviewed the FCC’s running track record of dawdling through investigations and proposals with no intention to get anywhere, but rather buying time until the next hearing.
“It seems that you’ve finally realized that the data you’ve collected is garbage, and that you need to do this all over again,” Doyle said. “Everyone has been telling you that for years, and instead of acting decisively, folks in rural America will have to wait even longer to get broadband as you finally collect the data that you need.”
“The FCC investigation into its wireless carrier coverage maps just proved the obvious – the maps are a mess,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told Gizmodo. “This is unfortunate because these maps are what the agency relies on when it makes decisions involving billions of dollars. What’s equally unfortunate is the agency’s reluctance to hold anyone accountable, which is proving to be business as usual for this FCC.”
At yesterday’s hearing, Rosenworcel lamented her colleagues’ apathy, stating “our priorities are mixed up.” In the seven months since the previous hearing, she would have liked to see FCC get moving on 5G access for rural America, shore up wireless networks that collapsed during numerous natural disasters, and give the public some inkling of what the hell is going on with the location data that ended up in the hands of bounty hunters.
Instead, she points to FCC’s regrettable approval of the largest wireless merger in history, focused only on service for urban communities, and “focused our energies on preempting states and localities who want to ensure deployment takes place in their communities”–presumably referring to the policy preventing states from implementing their own net neutrality rules.
“We’ve set out on a path that would distribute billions of dollars in universal service support for broadband based on data we all know is faulty because our maps have so many inaccuracies that they are not meaningful,” Rosenworcel added.
Pai did not address the erroneous maps in his testimony.
A T-Mobile spokesperson told Gizmodo that they “stand behind our network coverage and all of our maps,” but they “agree with the FCC that there is an opportunity to improve their procedures for collection of broadband coverage data for the Mobility Fund maps.” Verizon and U.S. Cellular both blamed the guidelines for creating the maps, telling Gizmodo that they’d both brought this to the FCC’s attention.
“The industry told the FCC more than two years ago how to build a coverage map that better aligns with real-world experiences,” Verizon said in a statement. “For policy reasons, the FCC rejected the industry’s consensus proposal in favor of a more expansive definition of coverage. Verizon simply followed the FCC’s instructions.”
Hm. A spokesperson for U.S. Cellular–which, again, produced no signal on nearly 40 percent of their network–told us that “[w]e have said all along that the parameters adopted by the Commission for the submittal of broadband coverage maps would result in overstated coverage, so the conclusions in the staff report come as no surprise to us.”
They are also very excited about the money the FCC will be giving them:
“We look forward to working with Staff and other interested parties in developing such maps. With the Chairman’s exciting announcement of the creation of a $9 billion 5G fund it will be vitally important that we identify precisely the rural portion of America that will need this funding the most.”
So, not only do telecoms avoid consequences for bad service, they’re rewarded for it. And if you don’t like it, the FCC asks that you kindly shut the fuck up about it.
The FCC’s media office was not immediately available for comment.