Did telecoms overreport their broadband coverage in underserved areas?
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Tucked away in the federal infrastructure deal that became law in late 2021 was more than $40 billion to expand broadband connectivity in areas that don’t have it or don’t have enough of it.
Figuring out where all that money should go, though, is challenging, and according to the Federal Communications Commission, Big Telecom isn’t really helping. The FCC said it’s looking into systematic overreporting of coverage by those broadband internet providers, but it didn’t say which ones.
Certain rural corners of Washoe County, Nevada, are 20 years behind when it comes to internet access.
“There’s a community called Gerlach, and it has virtually no access to broadband,” said County Manager Eric Brown. He also said that it’s hard to know that by looking at the FCC’s new draft national broadband map, where every single address in Gerlach is marked with a green dot.
“It’s showing that there’s coverage that the residents there are not experiencing,” Brown said.
The map relies on data reported by telecom companies. But according to Greg Guice with the nonprofit Public Knowledge, some of that data is merely aspirational.
“The incentive for the provider is to say, ‘I serve that address because it’s within the area that I want to serve,'” Guice said. Additionally, it’s where established providers don’t want rivals getting funding to build out faster or cheaper service.
“So, it’s to exclude potential competitors while they try to get their act together to get consumers broadband,” Guice explained.
Telecom trade group CTIA said its members followed FCC guidance in submitting broadband service data. State and local governments had until the end of January to challenge the FCC’s map.
But Jane Kolodinsky with the University of Vermont said some of the most underserved communities had the least capacity to fight.
“If your community does not have the resources in order to follow through on what is a very bureaucratic process,” then it might lose out on once-in-a-generation funding, she said.
Nicol Turner Lee with the Brookings Institution said that’s how a little bit of fudged data can have a huge impact.
“If by chance we’re off, it may not seem like a lot, but it could really be a make-or-break situation,” she said.
Without big investments, Lee said, rural communities aren’t able to fully participate in the broader economy.
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