FCC wants to hear from Americans who’ve been ignored by broadband industry

FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel sitting at a table and speaking during a Senate committee hearing.
Enlarge / FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel speaks during a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing on June 24, 2020, in Washington, DC.

The Federal Communications Commission wants to hear from Internet users about their experiences trying to find good broadband service. The FCC announced yesterday that it is seeking “first-hand accounts on broadband availability and service quality directly from consumers” as part of a new data collection effort. People who live in areas where ISPs either haven’t deployed service or have failed to upgrade old networks may be especially interested in participating.

“Far too many Americans are left behind in access to jobs, education, and healthcare if they do not have access to broadband,” acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said. “Collecting data from consumers who are directly affected by the lack of access to broadband will help inform the FCC’s mapping efforts and future decisions about where service is needed.” Rosenworcel shared those sentiments on Twitter as well:

Anyone who wants to participate can fill out the “Share Your Broadband Experience” form at this webpage. While the FCC is trying to find unserved areas, people with broadband access can also tell the FCC about the quality of their current ISPs. “Your experience with the availability and quality of broadband services at your location will help to inform the FCC’s efforts to close the digital divide,” the FCC said.

If you have a specific problem and want a response from your ISP, you can also file a complaint against the ISP at the consumer complaint center that the FCC has been operating for years.

Inaccurate broadband data

The “Share Your Broadband Experience” form is part of a larger project to improve the FCC maps that are supposed to show where broadband exists and where it doesn’t. The actual maps are not very accurate.

“As the Commission develops the tools needed to enhance the accuracy of its existing broadband maps, this new form provides a way for consumers to share their broadband experiences,” the FCC said. “Stories shared by consumers will help to inform the work of the FCC’s cross-agency Broadband Data Task Force.”

For people who want to keep track of the project’s progress, the FCC set up a webpage that it said “will serve as an informational hub for the Broadband Data Collection program, highlighting milestones and providing updates for consumers, state, local, and Tribal government entities, and other industry stakeholders.”

The FCC’s broadband maps help the commission develop policy and decide which parts of the country should get the most broadband-deployment funding. But the maps have long been inaccurate, largely because the FCC’s Form 477 data-collection program that requires ISPs to report coverage lets an ISP count an entire census block as served even if it can serve just one home in the block.

Long road to geospatial maps

In August 2019, the FCC voted to require that ISPs give the FCC geospatial maps of where they provide service instead of merely reporting which census blocks they offer service in. But then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai did not finish setting up the new system before leaving office in January 2021. His last act on the matter was to issue rules for the collection of new data.

Throughout his time as chair, Pai used the FCC’s bad data to claim that his deregulatory policies were speeding up deployment, including one instance in which his own staff had already pointed out a huge error that skewed the availability data.

Shortly after Democrats took charge of the FCC, Republicans in Congress criticized the commission for the long implementation time. In a letter to Rosenworcel on March 8, the Republican lawmakers stated, “You can imagine our surprise and disappointment when the FCC recently suggested the new maps would not be ready until 2022.”

“With so many Americans still lacking high-speed broadband, we are concerned that delays in completing these maps could lead to further delays in distributing critical broadband funds,” the Republican lawmakers wrote.

Rosenworcel points out Pai’s failure

A week later, Rosenworcel provided an update on the program status while pointing out that the FCC’s previous leadership did not finish the task it started.

“We have talked about doing this for years and years, but the agency failed to get it done,” Rosenworcel wrote. “Congress even prodded the FCC a year ago to fix this situation with a new law—the Broadband DATA Act—and then late last year provided the funding to implement it.”

Shortly after becoming acting chairwoman, Rosenworcel learned “that we had a lot of work to do and hadn’t yet begun many of the steps required to actually build a collection system,” she wrote. Her blog post described what needs to be done:

So now we need to set up a new method for collecting information to build a comprehensive, user-friendly dataset on broadband availability—one that will consider input from state and local governments, Tribal nations, and consumers, supplementing information we gather from carriers. We must also develop, test, and launch IT systems to collect and verify these data. Then we will create—for the first time—a publicly accessible, data-based nationwide map of locations where broadband is truly available throughout the United States.

On February 23, the Rosenworcel-led FCC awarded a contract to consulting firm Emprata “to support the design of complicated data analysis and systems.” On March 8, the commission issued a request for information to find vendors that can implement the new system.

Once the FCC collects geospatial maps from ISPs, US residents will be given a chance to challenge the accuracy of the submitted data. While Rosenworcel has not set an exact timeline for completing the mapping project, some numbers have been thrown around.

“Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell [(D-Wash.)] said Rosenworcel had in a recent conversation ‘intimated’ that a four-month timeline for maps was possible,” a National Journal article stated last week. But when asked about the “intimated” four-month timeline at a press conference, Rosenworcel reportedly declined to commit to a specific amount of time.

Though Rosenworcel is running the FCC’s operations as acting chair, the commission is deadlocked at two Republicans and two Democrats, including Rosenworcel. President Joe Biden still hasn’t nominated a third Democrat, preventing the FCC from passing orders that Republicans object to.