After four years in purgatory the US government's internet broadband map is back - and it's pretty good.
The map was relaunched at the monthly meeting of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday, presumably as a way to distract from the fact that the regulator finally published its net neutrality repeal in the Federal Register.
Those viewing it can search down to the zip code level to find out what companies offer broadband service and at what speed. You can filter results by speed, region provider and so on, and a color-coded map helps give a quick overview.
The map forms part of what the FCC and the Trump Administration claim is a top priority: the provision of fast internet access to US citizens. If anything, the map demonstrates just how far the US has to go to provide either universal and fast internet access, or a decent level of competition; despite the FCC's official claim otherwise.
Just 44 per cent of the country has a choice of three or more providers for the baseline broadband speed of 25Mbps downloads – and five percent of the country has no option at all. Nationally the competition level falls to 0.44 per cent when you look at truly fast 250Mbps internet access: an embarrassingly poor performance for the country that invented and continues to dominate the internet.
The national broadband map was originally published seven years ago and was updated with new data every six months. The cable companies hated it however and it stopped being updated in 2014, with new data made available instead in spreadsheet files that could be downloaded from the FCC's website.
An effort by the FCC to get the interactive map funded and back up and running failed in 2016 but it has now been reborn alongside a new push for expanded broadband access, focused on 5G mobile technology.
Hold your horses
Before you get too excited however, there are two big problems:
- The data that the map displays is very far from perfect
- There is no price information
The data is gathered through a specific form – named 477 – that all ISPs are required to send the FCC every six months. The form was created in 2000 and updated in 2013 but critics have long argued that it doesn't reflect reality on the ground.
Concerns that what cable companies were telling the FCC and what customers were actually receiving in terms of speed – particularly when it comes to mobile broadband - led the regulator to open a formal review of the form in 2016.
"Our experience in analyzing and working with the Form 477 data has shown us that the Form 477 data could be improved further to better understand the mobile broadband service that consumers actually experience," the FCC noted at the time.
It also pointed out that the regulator had never examined the method by which service providers came up with the data they provided, nor investigated whether the resulting data was accurate. And it noted that minimum or expected speeds were treated as confidential data and weren't shared. As a result, the broadband map provides a best-case scenario every time.
Needless to say, Big Cable wasn't excited about the prospect of having to provide real, verifiable data on actual internet speeds to the FCC and so it did everything in its power to kill off the idea. The proposals would "impose enormous costs on fixed broadband providers without providing any real benefit to the Commission or the public," claimed the industry. And it won.
As a result of this fight, today's shiny new broadband map only covers "fixed broadband deployment" and does not delve into mobile broadband access, despite the explicit suggestion by FCC chair Ajit Pai that mobile internet could be viewed as analogous to fixed broadband.
And, um, the cost?
But perhaps the biggest hole in the broadband map is price.
ISPs in the United States, especially the largest cable companies, are notorious for their bait-and-switch approach where they offer a low monthly rate but then ratchet up the fees by removing a range of "discounts" on the service.
Those companies have developed an extremely sophisticated system for assessing what prices to charge for their service, even down to the individual house level. The claim made by those companies that they would be unable to provide such data is not true, but the companies' have developed in such a way that this approach has become central to their business model and as such has become, in their eyes, of critical commercial importance.
Efforts by the FCC to peel away the layers to give consumers a true representation of the internet service they can expect and the price they can expect to pay for it have been persistent but largely ineffectual.
Unfortunately, there is no indication that the current FCC administration, under chair Ajit Pai, has any intention to keep pushing on that point.
So while the FCC should be applauded for getting the broadband map back up and running – and for doing a good job of making a vast database of information easy to search and makes sense of – the truth is that we are looking at an idealized version of reality as painted by ISPs themselves.
In a similar vein, the FCC's monthly meeting was notable for not being terrible. It moved forward with an auction plan for mobile voice and broadband licenses, with all five commissioners voting in support. An updated payphone auditing system was also scrapped with the support of all commissioners.
The only thing that looks suspicious is a plan to "eliminate the requirement in Section 73.2080(f)(2) of the Commission's rules that certain broadcast television and radio stations file the Broadcast Mid-Term Report."
What does that mean? We couldn't tell you straight off the bat but here's betting it directly benefits Sinclair Broadcasting.
As for the net neutrality repeal being formally published, it's the green light for telco lawyers but it still doesn't say when the repeal will actually come into force. We'll have to wait for a future FCC meeting to find that out. ®