Have Telcos Overstated Internet Coverage in Underserved Areas?

Hidden in the federal infrastructure agreement that came into force at the end of 2021 were more than 40 billion US dollars for the expansion of broadband connections in areas that don’t have enough of it or don’t have it.

Figuring out where all the money is going is a challenge, however, and according to the Federal Communications Commission, Big Telecom isn’t really helping. The FCC said it is reviewing systematic over-reporting of coverage by these broadband ISPs, but didn’t say which.

Certain rural corners of Washoe County, Nevada are 20 years behind in Internet access.

“There’s a community called Gerlach that has virtually no access to broadband,” County Manager Eric Brown said. He also said it’s hard to know by looking at the FCC’s new draft national broadband map, where every single address in Gerlach is marked with a green dot.

“It shows that there is coverage that residents aren’t experiencing,” Brown said.

The map is based on data reported by telecom companies. But according to Greg Guice of the nonprofit Public Knowledge, some of that data is just ambitious.

“The incentive for the provider is to say, ‘I serve this address because it’s in the area I want to serve,'” Guice said. In addition, incumbents do not want competitors to receive funding to build faster or cheaper services.

“So it’s about shutting out potential competitors as they try to pull themselves together to bring broadband to consumers,” Guice explained.

Telecom trade group CTIA said its members have followed FCC guidelines when transmitting broadband service data. State and local governments had until the end of January to challenge the FCC’s card.

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But Jane Kolodinsky of the University of Vermont said some of the most underserved communities have the least fighting strength.

“If your community doesn’t have the resources to go through a very bureaucratic process,” it could lose the one-time funding, she said.

Nicol Turner Lee of the Brookings Institution said a little bit of skewed data can have a huge impact.

“If we’re randomly out and about, it might not seem like a lot, but it really could be an all-or-nothing situation,” she said.

Without major investment, Lee said, rural communities are unable to participate fully in the broader economy.

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