Ajit Pai taking a big sip of hot coffee, we’d like to imagine right before he heard about this.
Photo: Jacquelyn Martin (AP)

Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai’s assessment of how rapidly broadband deployment has accelerated across the country may be hot bullshit, Ars Technica reported on Thursday.

Specifically, Pai’s continued claims that deregulation has led to more homes getting high-speed internet appear to be contradicted by an analysis of ISP coverage data submitted to the FCC by advocacy group Free Press. Pai claimed in a press release last month that the number of U.S. households lacking access to fixed broadband meeting its benchmark of 25 Mbps download rate and 3 Mbps upload rate “has dropped by over 25 percent, from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017.” Yet according to Free Press, those numbers appear to be cooked, as one ISP filed absolutely bewildering claims that probably inflated the stats by millions.

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In the brief submitted to the FCC, Free Press Research Director Derek Turner wrote that a firm named Barrier Communications Corporation (known as BarrierFree) “claimed deployment of fiber-to-the-home (“FTTH”) and fixed wireless services (each at downstream/upstream speeds of 940 Mbps/880 Mbps) to Census blocks containing nearly 62 million persons” in Form 477 filings. If true, Turner wrote, that would make Barrier the fourth largest ISP by population coverage—“an implausible suggestion, to put it mildly.”

Even more bizarrely, Turner wrote, Barrier claimed in its filings it grew so significantly in just six months:

This claimed level of deployment stood out to us for numerous reasons, including the impossibility of a new entrant going from serving zero Census blocks as of June 30, 2017, to serving nearly 1.5 million blocks containing nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population in just six months time. We further examined the underlying Form 477 data and discovered that BarrierFree appears to have simply submitted as its coverage area a list of every single Census block in each of eight states in which it claimed service: CT, DC, MD, NJ, NY, PA, RI, and VA.

In other words, BarrierFree claimed to offer FTTH [fiber-to-the-home] service with downstream speeds of 940 Mbps to 100 percent of the geographic area and 100 percent of the population of New York State, and also to 100 percent of those seven other states. BarrierFree’s over-reporting in this manner not only produces wildly overinflated deployment claims for itself and these eight states: it also has a substantial impact on the putative change in deployment at the national level.

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As TechCrunch noted, BarrierFree’s forms thus asserted it had the capacity to deliver gigabit speeds via broadband to 62 million people. It does not (Free Press wrote the only filer that said they offer service that fast is Verizon Fios’ fiber-to-the-home network). TechCrunch wrote that BarrierFree instead appears to only offer fixed wireless service in the form of “25 megabit speeds at best going to a few thousand.”

In a statement to Ars Technica, BarrierFree Chief Operating Officer Jim Gerbig said, “There is indeed an error in the Form 477 filings for BarrierFree, and it doesn’t reflect our current level of broadband deployment.” He added that some of the filings were “parsed incorrectly in the upload process” and a correction was not made due to the federal government shutdown that began in January.

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While Pai touted the apparently miscalculated tallies in the press release, Ars Technica wrote, he has yet to clear the full Broadband Deployment Report on which his claims were made through the FCC commission. That means it can’t be vetted, but Free Press argued there was no way to come to his numbers without including BarrierFree’s fictional filings.

Eliminating the bogus BarrierFree data increases the number of people lacking a fixed broadband connection at the 25Mbps/3Mbps standard from the 19.4 million claimed by Pai to 21.3 million, Free Press wrote. It additionally shrinks the number of rural customers Pai said gained access to high-speed internet meeting the standard—5.6 million—by two million.

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TechCrunch added:

And a huge reported increase to people on a sub-gigabit but high-speed tier (250/50 Mbps) would have been largely attributable to these non-existent connections—tens of millions of them.

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Whoops!

“Free Press’s allegations are troubling,” Democratic FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks told Ars Technica in a statement. “The FCC’s maps are frequently criticized for being inaccurate and overstating broadband coverage. The maps and deployment data are becoming a repeat offender... I disagree with the rosy picture that the chairman painted when he described the commission’s draft broadband report last month, and news like this just makes matters worse.”

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“This is not good,” fellow Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel added. “It absolutely deserves a closer look.”

As Ars Technica noted, Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 obligates the FCC to assess the rate of broadband deployment annually and “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability” in the event it finds it is not happening quickly enough. Pai has, for the past two years, claimed it is happening quickly enough.

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A representative for Pai told TechCrunch, “We are looking into the matter.” Hmm.

[Free Press via Ars Technica]

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