Mapping the American Broadband Gap

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

The average US home-Internet bill increased 19 percent during the first three years of the Trump administration, disproving former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s claim that deregulation lowered prices, according to a new report by advocacy group Free Press. For tens of millions of families that aren’t wealthy, “these increases are felt deeply, forcing difficult decisions about which services to forgo so they can maintain critical Internet access services,” Free Press wrote.

This report squares with research published in November indicating that American internet speeds rose in 2020; it makes sense that working and learning from home pushed people to upgrade to faster and more expensive plans. But the deregulation push by the FCC under the last administration clearly did not bring prices down, nor did dropping net neutrality increase capital expenditures as Pai claimed it would:

Capital investment by Internet providers has dropped, “with substantial declines at large companies like AT&T (where 2020 investment was 52 percent below the 2016 total for the company on an inflation-adjusted basis) and Comcast (where 2020 cable segment investment was 22 percent below 2016’s level on an inflation-adjusted basis),” the report said.

A global catastrophe will obviously have unexpected effects. But capital expenditures also declined in 2018, and this report shows that broadband prices increased that year as well. Pai’s claims about the relationship between net neutrality and spending are as fictional as the millions of people who apparently supported his plan, as are his claims about the supposed advantages of deregulating a utility.

So what about speed? Well, the FCC is required to release a report about the state of broadband in the United States and nationwide speeds appears to be getting better every year. But this data does come with a significant caveat. Peggy Schaffer, Techdirt:

As a director of a state broadband program, one of my biggest challenges is data. I know lots of areas in my state have inadequate or no service. I get those emails every day. We have a public facing broadband map which is based on the data that the internet service providers (ISPs) provide to the FCC on what is known as the Form 477. The notorious problem with the 477 data is that gross inaccuracies are built into the reporting. ISPs report advertised speeds based on census blocks, where if one home in a census block is served, or could reasonably be served, the entire census block is considered served.

The FCC says that it no longer uses Form 477 to generate these maps. But it does still rely on self-reported data from ISPs, and they frequently intervene to try to make their speeds look better. The FCC is taking steps to correct this by launching its own speed testing app, which you can download now. Until the FCC gets its act together, there is another way of estimating broadband speeds across the U.S.

Russell Brandom and William Joel, the Verge:

Instead of the FCC’s data, we drew on an anonymized dataset collected by Microsoft through its cloud services network, published in increments by the company over the past 18 months. If the FCC monitors the connections that providers say they’re offering, this measures what they’re actually getting. You can roll over specific counties to see the exact percentage of households connected at broadband speed, and the data is publicly available on GitHub if you want to check our work or drill down further.

The disparity between FCC reports and the Microsoft data can be shocking. In Lincoln County, Washington, an area west of Spokane with a population just a hair over 10,000, the FCC lists 100 percent broadband availability. But according to Microsoft’s data, only 5 percent of households are actually connecting at broadband speeds.

Other areas stand out for the sheer scale of the problem. Nine counties in Nevada fall under the 10 percent threshold, covering more than 100,000 people and the bulk of the area of the state. Most of Alaska is a similar dead zone — understandably, given how rugged the state’s interior is — but similar gaps pop up in southwest New Mexico or central Texas.

This is some excellent reporting.

Microsoft’s data indicates that 93% of people in California’s Santa Clara county are using internet speeds of 25 Mbps or higher. That is among the highest density of broadband users in the country, which explains why so many software companies headquartered there see no problem with pestering us with weekly updates that total several hundreds megabytes or, often, many gigabytes.

These reports indicate that American broadband — and, as previously noted, Canadian broadband as well — remains expensive and slow compared to other developed nations. Deregulation did not help; gutting net neutrality made things worse. And this pandemic is only making these gaps more noticeable and urgent.