FCC revises its U.S. broadband numbers downward after finding ‘drastically overstated’ data

rural area
The mistake was caused by a new ISP called BarrierFree that falsely reported “wildly over-inflated deployment claims.” (Pixabay)

The Federal Communications Commission said that its broadband numbers released in February were inaccurate and overstated, and revised the figure. But, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said even with the revised numbers, his agency was still making progress in closing the digital divide.

Pai first circulated the 2019 Broadband Deployment Report to FCC commissioners in February.  At the time, he boasted that his agency’s work to bring broadband to unserved Americans was working.

Yesterday, the FCC said it had revised the 2019 Broadband Deployment Report after “a thorough review of the initial draft, triggered by the discovery that a company submitted drastically overstated deployment data to the FCC.”

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The mistake was discovered by the advocacy group Free Press, which found that a new ISP called BarrierFree falsely reported “wildly over-inflated deployment claims.” Pai never credited Free Press with finding the mistake.

The FCC’s revised report shows that the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed terrestrial broadband connection meeting the FCC’s advanced telecommunications capability benchmark speed of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream had dropped from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 21.3 million at the end of 2017, an improvement of about 18%.

The initial February report had stated that the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection meeting the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps had dropped from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017, an improvement of about 25%.

The FCC had also initially said that the majority of those gaining access to such high-speed connections was about 5.6 million rural Americans. But this week, it revised that number down to 4.3 million.

Accurately reported numbers are important for groups trying to serve broadband to more rural Americans. This includes Microsoft, which is pursuing a strategy using TV white spaces technology via its Airband Initiative. 

RELATED: Microsoft soldiers on with its TV white spaces initiative

One problem that Microsoft has complained about in terms of bridging the digital divide is that the data from the FCC is not accurate. Shelley McKinley, head of Microsoft’s technology and corporate responsibility group said in a conversation with FierceWireless earlier this year that it’s important to have accurate data about where connectivity is lacking in order to know where funding should be allocated. She described the FCC’s estimations as “flawed data after flawed data.”  She said part of the problem is that the questions asked of internet service providers are flawed. The FCC asks ISPs where they “could” provide service as opposed to asking them “where do they provide service?” 

Microsoft has done some of its own independent research to point out the disparity between the FCC’s estimates and the reality to rural Americans. For example, in Ferry County, Washington, the FCC shows 100% broadband coverage. But, Microsoft found that only 2% of households were actually using broadband speeds.

McKinley said the FCC’s data shows that there have been significant improvements in closing the digital divide. “We haven’t seen that,” she said, “Our data that we’ve made available from Microsoft shows the problem is much much larger.”

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