Policy

Bad broadband maps are keeping people offline, and everyone knows it

The center of Maine’s lobster industry shows how much work towns must do to convince anyone they have poor internet access.

Deer Isle

Experiments in crowd-sourced coverage mapping show how much work underserved communities need to put in to even try to assert the realities of broadband.

Photo: Gerald M. Brody

Deer Isle lies just off the Maine coast, an hour south of Bangor on state roads. It’s home to Stonington, the most important of Maine’s landings for lobster fishers, plus 2,000 wintertime residents and twice that in the warmer months. It’s also one of many places in the U.S. where it can be a pain to get good internet access.

At least, that’s what residents, visitors, the town manager and the state — all the folks who actually try to use a connection — say. Spectrum tells another story. In recent months, the internet provider has cited Federal Communications Commission maps to insist that it covers almost all of the island, and that the area doesn’t need federal money that might help a rival build out more capacity and access.

“It just shows how woefully inadequate the current broadband maps are; yet, we continue to keep relying on them,” said Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports, who is familiar with the area. Current U.S. broadband coverage maps vastly overstate the reality of access to the internet, and thus confound government efforts to connect all Americans. Fixing them is one of the few truly bipartisan tech issues in Washington. Even FCC personnel agree.

That’s why more than 100 residents have sent Deer Isle town manager James Fisher information since November. They’re trying to show the FCC map that Spectrum sent is little more than wishful thinking, particularly on the eastern half of the island, where many homes can watch the sunrise over Acadia National Park but the ability to Zoom is hit or miss.

Fisher’s experiments in crowd-sourced coverage mapping show how much work underserved communities need to put in to even try to assert the realities of local internet access. And these areas, like Deer Isle, will likely continue to face ISPs’ incentives to undermine rivals’ plans — all as the federal government prepares to send out billions in funding to expand broadband access in the coming years.

“We need to fix them ASAP,” Schwantes said.

‘It really bogs down’

The current broadband maps are so inaccurate, Congress has demanded better surveys be in place ahead of the distribution of more than $42 billion included in November’s infrastructure package for broadband deployment in underserved areas. To dole out $288 million that Congress put aside for unserved areas in 2020’s final COVID-19 relief package, however, the government is still largely relying on the current maps. On those, internet-service providers need only attest that they could connect a single home or business in the surrounding census tract — an area of about 4,000 people — for the FCC to label the area covered.

“The original sin here is the FCC data,” said Peggy Schaffer, executive director of ConnectME, a state body that put together an application for grant money to build out broadband in seven areas of the state, including Deer Isle. “The further original sin is any assumption that the FCC data, given what they ask providers for, is accurate, because it’s not.”

In its proposal to improve the internet infrastructure in Deer Isle and the surrounding area, ConnectME proposed to have Consolidated Communications, the incumbent telephone service provider, carry out the project. Spectrum, which competes with Consolidated, then challenged the proposed project by claiming it already provides service to the island, citing the FCC map as evidence — even though, Schaffer said, the ISP’s own website says it doesn’t reach many of the addresses in the area.

Map of Deer Isle Spectrum used FCC data to claim it already provides service to most of Deer Isle.Image: Spectrum

“You cannot make this stuff up because no one would believe you,” she said. After Schaffer received Spectrum’s challenge, she sent it out to a state lawmaker, hoping to demonstrate Spectrum had overstated its coverage. The legislator eventually sent it on to Fisher, who by then had just a day to respond, according to Deer Isle’s Island Ad-Vantages newspaper.

Fisher told Protocol that about a third to half of the island has access to broadband internet from Spectrum, which typically offers download speeds of 100 Mbps and upload speeds around 10 Mbps. Some other residents use spotty wireless options or satellite services including SpaceX’s Starlink, he said, and “another chunk” of the island, including the town office itself, uses slower DSL.

“When I’m here alone, it works reasonably well, but it really bogs down when all of us are trying to use it,” Fisher said. “It will just shut down sometimes.” Overall, he said, Deer Isle has few “very good” options; he described children who have difficulty attending school when it goes remote and an influx of city-dwellers during the pandemic who struggled to telecommute. One homeowner, Fisher said, had three renters leave because of internet access issues.

Charter, which owns Spectrum, did not respond to a request for comment.

When Fisher received Spectrum’s coverage map, he took to the town’s Facebook page and asked residents to help build a better one by sending in their addresses and whether they had access to cable internet.

“I’m a pretty measured person — kind of boring, I suppose,” Fisher said. “Not many things I do catch fire like that, but that certainly did.” About 80 households sent responses, and more have since come in, Fisher said. The town manager, who has a doctorate in urban planning, had been using mapping systems since the 1980s. He'd recently received a fellowship that he used to study potential local broadband plans, so he decided to overlay the residents’ responses on a map alongside the existing lines. It appeared to show plenty of coverage dead spots where Spectrum claimed it offered service.

‘Very intensive’

Not every underserved community happens to have longtime urban planners with experience in telecom infrastructure proposals and geo-software on hand to lead its response to inaccurate mapping. Nonetheless, experts say states and localities do try to improve their coverage maps with some regularity.

In 2018, for instance, Georgia passed a law requiring ISPs to share more granular data for better maps. The state also partnered with a real estate data firm to get a better sense of locations, and required that 80% of homes and businesses in a census block have access to the internet before the area can be considered covered. The resulting map concluded 12,316 census blocks that the FCC deemed served didn’t actually have ready access to broadband. Pennsylvania has turned to crowdsourced speed tests, while Maine has used multiple data streams, including a proprietary broadband intelligence platform. Other areas allow public feedback on published maps.

”We have worked with several states across the country on developing broadband mapping that is more detailed and accurate than what’s currently available at the federal level,” said Ashley Hitt, vice president of geoanalytics at Connected Nation, a public-private partnership that seeks to extend broadband access. The group’s project in Texas, for instance, has generated several maps of the state examining multiple speed thresholds. The new maps required “public feedback, field validation, and provider input,” and Hitt said the process required “very, very intensive” efforts.

The ultimate goal, though, is for the FCC to deliver soon on the improved national maps that Congress demanded — with granular data and more information from the public. But Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC’s chair, told Congress in November the agency is struggling with access to the high-level computing it needs to update the maps, and procurement regulations could slow down the work of obtaining a basic list of eligible locations across the U.S. by months.

Yet even when those maps are in place, and the government is apportioning grants to the states, underserved areas appear likely to deal with something else that Deer Isle faces: incumbent internet providers challenging much-needed buildout proposals that would benefit their rivals.

Map of Deer Isle Town manager James Fisher asked Deer Isle residents to report whether they had access to Spectrum internet, but many said they didn't.Image: James Fischer

Challenges are theoretically intended to ensure the government isn’t wasting money on building up infrastructure in areas that already, or soon will, have good internet service. Occasionally they generate updated data about service and infrastructure too. Some experts who work on connectivity, though, say that providers often abuse the process to protect their own territories or make things expensive for competitors, a tactic the ISPs are bound to try in the next round of infrastructure funds if they are allowed to.

“There’s too much incentive to just challenge arbitrarily as a means of slowing things down,” said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group. He suggested that any grant-making include penalties for bad-faith challenges. Minnesota, for instance, requires that challengers sit out two grant-funding cycles if they aren’t delivering service they claimed in a challenge to provide, or don’t build it up in a timely manner.

“There’s just a lot of money on the line at the end of the day,” Falcon said.

In the meantime, Schaffer of ConnectME said she hasn’t heard of a final decision from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is overseeing the current grants and will decide how the larger tranche of money from the infrastructure package is distributed in coming years. NTIA has said that it received requests for $2.5 billion for the $288 million program.

“They’re now, on our application and all the other ones … sitting with a ‘he said/she said,’” Schaffer said. “They have to make a decision, and I don’t know how they’re going to.”

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