Here's an activity you can do right now to put the FCC's data to the test.
If recent coverage maps from the FCC are to be believed, America no longer suffers from a digital divide.
Mapping data collected in 2018 suggests that the overwhelming majority of Americans, more than 95%, have access to a high-speed Internet connection. However, these claims have been met with skepticism, with many pointing to systemic flaws in how the mapping data was collected. Much of the criticism is directed towards Form 477, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T and Comcast to regularly self-report the areas and speeds at which they provide broadband service. A lack of FCC verification has allowed some companies to grossly inflate their coverage data.
So how accurate are these maps, really? To put the FCC's data to the test, we devised a short experiment you can do right now! If you're reading this from somewhere within the United States, you already have everything you need to carry out this activity. Feel free to follow along.
Step 1. Search for your current location on the FCC map.
Clicking the link below will open a new tab with a map updated with the latest public FCC coverage data. The map shows how many ISPs claim to provide speeds exceeding the FCC’s high-speed broadband standards of 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps (Download/Upload). Search for your current location on the map.
Or copy and paste this link into another tab: https://broadbandmap.fcc.gov/#/location-summary?version=jun2020&tech=acfosw&speed=25_3
Once the map centers on your location, take note of the following:
Is your location in a blue/blue-green shaded region? If so, there is at least one provider currently operating in your area that claims to provide high-speed internet at the FCC benchmark.
Note the pink boundary line. This is your census block. If a provider reports at least one high-speed internet connection anywhere in this area, the FCC assumes that everyone in the highlighted region also has access.
Does the list of providers reflect reality? On the new tab, scroll down to the section below the map. There will be a table of all providers and internet speeds to which you supposedly have access. Is there a “clear winner” on that list? Are providers with lackluster speeds also listed? The ISP lobby uses the number of providers to demonstrate that consumers have multiple options for coverage. However, subpar speeds, spotty service, and pricing tactics limit consumer choice much more than the map suggests.
Step 2. Measure your actual internet speed.
Use the tool below to measure your actual internet speed. Remember, if you're in a blue/blue-green region, your results should meet or exceed the FCC standards for high-speed internet: 25 Mbps Download and 3 Mbps Upload. Conduct the speed test now, and feel free to repeat the test a few times closer to your router if you feel that the results were influenced by other environmental factors.
Step 3. Take a look at your results.
If your final result is below the FCC standards and you conducted this test from within a blue/blue-green shaded region on the map, you are one of the Americans the FCC has missed!
Even if you found your results to be consistent with the FCC's coverage maps, consider how the agency's counting method may negatively affect those around you. Because you have a high-speed connection, your provider is able to report your entire neighborhood as "serviced." When repeated and compounded over every census block in the United States, this "rounding up" practice can lead to some pretty significant undercounting.
How Many Americans Has the FCC Missed?
No one really knows for sure. In 2018, the FCC reported that only 21 million Americans lack access to high-speed broadband. But a May 2021 audit by BroadbandNow estimated the actual number to be 42 million, double the FCC's estimate. An independent analysis from Microsoft found this number may be closer to 157 million—half the population of the United States.
The fact that these estimates range from the population of Florida to that of Russia speaks to the magnitude of the mapping problem, a longstanding issue that has frustrated lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. During a testy 2020 hearing on broadband infrastructure, Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) told FCC commissioners, "The accuracy or the value of the map is nearly nil in my view." Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) took a decidedly more blunt approach, "The maps stink, basically. We need to kick somebody’s ass, truthfully."
Maintaining highly accurate maps is essential to the FCC's commitment to bridging the digital divide. The agency maintains a Universal Service Fund which is used to support universal connectivity efforts in communities that need it the most. This fund largely relies on coverage maps to determine how funds are allocated. But efforts to fix these coverage maps have faced enormous pushback from telecommunications companies who fear additional oversight. Current maps lend the appearance of competition and consumer choice, even though field audits, like one conducted in Cleveland by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), refute the ISP’s claims.
Maps that paint a falsely optimistic picture of the digital gap can also be misused by political figures to tout the supposed accomplishments of the FCC. Agency documents like this one titled, "FCC Annual Broadband Report Shows Digital Divide Is Rapidly Closing" make use of clever wordplay to blur the lines between the very different meanings of "have access" and "have." In a dissent to this report, Commissioner Rosenworcel stated, "We are in the middle of a pandemic....So it confounds logic that today the FCC decides to release a report that says that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion."
But recent FCC initiatives indicate a shift in tone under the new leadership of Rosenworcel, who President Biden designated to lead the FCC shortly after taking office. In February 2021, the FCC announced the creation of a Broadband Data Task Force which will create new maps updated with "broadband availability data down to the individual location" by 2022. But whether these new mapping efforts will, at last, lead to some much-needed progress in closing the digital divide for all Americans remains to be seen.
Cover Image: National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA)