FCC urges Americans to run internet speed app to counter Big Cable's broadband data fudging

Effort to get accurate info gets more serious under new chairwoman


The FCC is encouraging netizens to use its internet speed mobile app in an effort to finally get accurate broadband data across the United States.

In an announcement on Monday, the telecoms regulator noted that “the app provides a way for consumers to test the performance of their mobile and in-home broadband networks” and “provides the test results to the FCC.”

It stops far short of saying that the data will be used to make policy decisions, however, saying only that the figures gathered “will help to inform the FCC’s efforts to collect more accurate and granular broadband deployment data.”

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The app itself has been available since 2014 with a second and third version produced in 2018 and the fourth, current version released last year. It was made for the FCC by internet metrics company SamKnows, which was started by software developer Sam Crawford in 2008. Crawford remains CTO and the company is well known within the internet industry for bringing together actionable stats.

The app’s development has in many respects tracked political battles around broadband provision. It was first envisioned and created under the FCC chairmanship of Tom Wheeler, who took on the might of the cable industry through several different avenues in an effort to put the subscriber first.

For years, Big Cable has been manipulating the data it is obliged to send the FCC over the speeds and provision of its broadband services, making the market appear much more competitive and internet access much faster than in reality. By putting a crowdsourcing app out there, Wheeler and his staff hoped to expose the depth of the manipulation.

Pai face

However when Ajit Pai took over as FCC chairman, he dismantled all such efforts, along with the idea of breaking the set-top box oligopoly, tried to lower the definition of broadband internet speed, and discarded net neutrality rules. With Jessica Rosenworcel now in charge, the app is back.

“To close the gap between digital haves and have nots, we are working to build a comprehensive, user-friendly dataset on broadband availability,” Rosenworcel said in a canned quote. “Expanding the base of consumers who use the FCC Speed Test app will enable us to provide improved coverage information to the public and add to the measurement tools we’re developing to show where broadband is truly available throughout the United States.”

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The public push doesn’t mean that things are going to get better soon. Big Cable has aggressively – and successfully – argued in the past that data provided by users over an app is not sufficiently robust to form the basis of governmental decisions. And so the FCC will have to use the results as a way to push for change rather than use the data to make direct decisions.

Everybody, including numerous states, cities, congressfolk and the GAO, know that the official FCC data provided by ISPs is not worth the paper it’s written on. But broader usage of the app should expose just how inaccurate official figures are, which should in turn provide enough impetus for change. The bigger question is whether enough progress is made in the next four years to make any difference.

If a Republican president is selected in 2024, the FCC chair will again change and we can expect to see efforts to force Big Cable to improve their services and/or provide more accurate data dry up yet again.

Which is as good a reason as any for people to download the app and start sending real-world data to the regulator. ®


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