Have telcos over-reported internet coverage in underserved areas?


In the federal infrastructure deal, which became law in late 2021, was more than $40 billion to expand broadband connectivity to areas that don’t have it or don’t have enough of it.

Figuring out where all that money should go is a challenge, though, and according to the Federal Communications Commission, Big Telecom isn’t really helping. The FCC said it is investigating systematic overreporting of coverage by these broadband providers, but did not say which ones.

Some rural parts 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 it’s hard to tell by looking at the FCC’s new draft national broadband map, where every single address in Gerlach is marked with a green dot.

“It shows that there is coverage that the residents there are not experiencing,” Brown said.

The map is based on data reported by telecommunications companies. But according to Greg Guis of the non-governmental organization Public Knowledge, some of these figures are merely aspirational.

“The incentive for the provider is to say, ‘I’m serving this address because it’s in the area I want to serve,'” Guis said. Also, this is where incumbents don’t want rivals getting funding to build a faster or cheaper service.

“So it’s to shut out potential competitors as they try to come together to provide consumers with broadband,” Guis explained.

The telecommunications trade group CTIA said its members follow FCC guidelines when sending data for broadband services. State and local governments had until the end of January to challenge the FCC’s map.

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But Jane Kolodinski of the University of Vermont said some of the most underserved communities have the least capacity to fight back.

“If your community doesn’t have the resources to go through what is a very bureaucratic process,” then it could lose once-in-a-generation funding, she said.

Nicole Turner Lee of the Brookings Institution said that such a small amount of tampered data can have a huge impact.

“If we happen to go off, it might not seem like much, but it really could be a crucial situation,” she said.

Without major investment, Lee said, rural communities are unable to participate fully in the broader economy.

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