FCC chairman Ajit Pai

FCC admits it ‘drastically overstated’ US broadband figures

Image credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finally concedes what the rest of the world already knew.

The FCC has finally admitted that the figures it released in February purportedly showing the great strides being made in terms of US broadband deployment were in fact “drastically overstated”.

This comes as news to almost no one, except apparently to FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who continues to claim that the now “corrected data” vindicates his policies toward boosting broadband access across the US, particularly in rural areas.

The problem stemmed from Pai’s decision to issue only a single-page press release containing a few cherry-picked numbers, in place of the full broadband deployment report, which served to make the broadband picture appear rosier than it really is.

The subterfuge only lasted a matter of days, with many industry commentators soon calling the conclusions into question. An estimated 20 million homes across the US still lack access to high-speed connections – a fact glossed over in February’s single-page report from the FCC.

Pai’s office has now finally issued a new press release, pointing to a revised version of the draft report that contains updated, more accurate figures.

February’s report had claimed that the number of Americans without access to a fixed broadband connection of at least 25Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream had fallen from 26.1 million at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017.

These figures were based on erroneous data provided by ISP newcomer BarrierFree. The revised report now states that the correct number for the end of 2017 is 21.3 million.

The first report also overstated the number of rural Americans with access to broadband speeds, claiming 5.6 million where the revised report now reduces that figure to 4.3 million. Also incorrectly reported were figures for the number of Americans with access to much faster speeds, including 100Mbps downstream and 50Mbps upstream. Figures for access to broadband with speeds reaching 250Mbps/25Mbps in 2017 were also reduced in the new report, from 45 per cent down to 36 per cent.

In a statement, the FCC said: “The revision reflects a thorough review of the initial draft triggered by the discovery that a company submitted drastically overstated deployment data to the FCC. After appropriate revisions to the report, it continues to support the conclusion that significant progress has been made in closing the digital divide in America.”

Pai hailed the revised figures as conclusive evidence that the FCC’s policies are working. He was also unable to resist claiming that the new figures are proof positive of the good effects of his highly controversial decision to reverse net neutrality legislation – a reversal that theoretically allows ISPs and telecom companies to charge consumers different rates for differing speeds of internet access – in spite of compelling evidence that the FCC issued misleading propaganda in support of Pai’s policy, compounded by country-wide opposition to the decision, ongoing political challenges and the commitment by many US states, such as California, to uphold the principles of net neutrality.

“Fortunately, the new data doesn’t change the report’s fundamental conclusion: we are closing the digital divide, which means we’re delivering on the FCC’s top priority,” Pai said. “We’re achieving this result by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and providing efficient, effective support for rural broadband expansion through our Universal Service Fund programs.”

An organisation called Free Press was among the first to call the FCC’s figures and conclusions into question – something that Pai did not care to mention. The organisation alerted the FCC to the fact that BarrierFree had falsely reported to the FCC that it was serving 20 per cent of the entire country, despite having started operating only six months before. This skewed the FCC’s overall results by many millions.

In a statement provided to tech site Ars Technica, Matt Wood, general counsel at Free Press, acknowledged the FCC’s correction but pointed out that Pai is still taking credit for something he doesn’t deserve.

“We’re very glad to see that the FCC has addressed the error [that] Free Press identified,” Wood said. “While chairman Pai isn’t a big enough person to say our name or to mention Free Press’s role in discovering an error that had eluded staff, we will take heart in the good result and leave Pai’s pettiness out of it.

“Of course, fixing this error doesn’t fix the other huge flaw we cited in our letter about BarrierFree: the Pai FCC keeps trying to take credit for broadband deployment and speed increases well under way before and during Title II’s reinstatement.

“When chairman Pai takes credit for ISP investment and improvements he quite literally had nothing to do with, it’s an ongoing embarrassment that simply revising the numbers down cannot fix.”

The FCC has said that the full revised report won’t be publicly released until FCC commissioners have voted on it. Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has already stated that she won’t support the report’s conclusions.

“While it’s a good thing the FCC has finally fixed this mess with its data, the fact of the matter is that millions of American households – in rural and urban communities – have no access to high-speed service. That’s a problem,” Rosenworcel said. “With tens of millions of Americans without access to broadband, it’s simply not credible for the agency to conclude that broadband deployment across the country is reasonable and timely.”

In good news for some of the more remote US citizens, it has been confirmed that Alaska will soon connect to the rest of the US via a 100-terabit fibre-optic network. The frozen northern state of Alaska currently has some of the slowest internet connections in the whole of the US, due to its geographical distance from the rest of the country.

Now, MTA Fiber Holdings has announced that it will build the “first and only all-terrestrial” fibre-optic network running from Alaska and into the Lower 48. The line will begin in North Pole, Alaska, and will travel through Canada – connecting with Canadian carriers – before finally connecting with “any major hub” in the US. The majority of Alaska’s internet connections currently run via either submarine cables, satellites or wireless connections.

“This is a major step for Alaska that will ensure future capacity requirements for MTA members and can support the continuing growth of broadband across the state of Alaska,” Michael Burke, MTA CEO, said in a statement.

Burke said that construction on the network has already begun and that it is expected to be completed during 2020.

“Alaska’s leaders have talked about a terrestrial fibre-optic path out of the state for more than 20 years. We are pleased to be the ones to be able to make this a reality,” Burke said. “This will be a major win for the people who live, play and work in Alaska, supporting business, job growth and, ultimately, the state’s economy.”

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