Telecom Monopolies Are Exploiting Crappy U.S. Broadband Maps To Block Community Broadband Grant Requests
from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept
We’ve noted repeatedly that despite a lot of breathless rhetoric about America’s “quest to bridge the digital divide,” U.S. government leaders still don’t actually know where broadband is or isn’t available. Shoddy broadband mapping has generally been a good thing for regional U.S. telecom monopolies, who not only have been allowed to obscure competition gaps (and the high prices and poor service that result), but hoover up an endless gravy train of subsidies and tax breaks for networks that…mysteriously…always wind up half deployed. Our failure to measure deployment success has been painfully, repeatedly exploited.
But there are other ways that incumbents exploit our ongoing failure to map broadband to their advantage. Case in point: roughly 230 U.S. communities have applied for broadband grants being doled out as part of the National Transportation Infrastructure Agency (NTIA)’s $288 million Broadband Infrastructure Program. But when a town or local cooperative/utility/public-private partnership looking to build its own, better broadband network applies for the grant, they’re facing baseless challenges by ISPs which claim they already serve these areas.
Grafton, New Hampshire, for example, is looking to build its own fiber network after years of market neglect. It had 3,000 of the 4,000 census blocks they applied for grant money for falsely challenged by regional giants Comcast and Charter Spectrum:
“Of the 4,000 census blocks covered by Grafton’s grant application, Coates said that incumbent ISPs challenged 3,000 of them, even those dominated by cemeteries. In the majority of the challenges, telecom giants overstated available speeds and existing coverage, he noted.
“My immediate response was that this was them telling us to go boil water,” Coates said. “Here you go, prove that you can do this in these three thousand census blocks. Have fun figuring it out.”
As we’ve noted, there’s a big lobbying push afoot by entrenched monopolies to ensure as little government stimulus money as possible goes toward building out competition to their regional dominance, no matter what that competition looks like (cooperatives, utilities, local governments, smaller private ISPs, private/public partnerships). To justify their obstruction to local community grants, big ISPs like Comcast and Charter point to FCC broadband maps they know aren’t accurate to insist nothing needs to be done. That perpetuates the sub-par service and high prices created by monopolization.
Except the FCC’s maps routinely overstate both coverage and speeds, and have for decades. The FCC’s methodology also declared (until only recently) that an entire census block is “served” with broadband, if an ISP claims it can serve just one home in that census block. While there have finally been some meaningful improvements to FCC mapping pushed through Congress, it’s still going to be several years (and significantly more funding) before most of those fixes can be properly implemented. Some states have developed their own alternative mapping solutions, but for many, engaging in a bureaucratic battle with deep-pocketed monopolies to disprove their coverage claims isn’t financially viable.
While the NTIA has made some progress of its own on mapping, it’s still being tasked with doling out $42 billion in additional broadband grants as part of the recently passed infrastructure bill — despite still not having an entirely accurate picture of the problem it’s trying to fix. That is, and will continue to be, exploited by entrenched monopolies like AT&T, Comcast, Charter, or Verizon which have not only fought against better mapping for years (knowing more accurate data would only spur calls for reform), but have a vested interest in fighting tooth and nail against any effort to disrupt the uncompetitive status quo.