Free Press: FCC Broadband Gains Overstated

Free Press has told the FCC that the gains trumpeted by FCC chair Ajit Pai in the 2019 Sec. 706 Broadband Deployment Report partly based on erroneous and inflated numbers.

That came in a filing this week that says the numbers were goosed by claims by Barrier Communications Corporation that it reached almost 1.5 million census blocks with fiber-to-the-home and fixed wireless service when it appeared the company had simply submitted as its coverage area every census blocks in the eight states where it offered service to any census block, and at speeds of 940 Mbps.

Free Press said those inflated numbers do a number on the the report's, and Pai's, claims of deployment gains under his watch.

Related: FCC Says Digital Divide Has Substantially Narrowed

The report showed that "the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection meeting the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps has dropped by over 25%, from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017." Free Press says with the numbers un-inflated by Barrier, there is still a decline, but to 21.3 million, not the claimed 19.4 million.

Pai is particularly focused on rural broadband deployment, "BarrierFree’s erroneous reporting is responsible for 2 million of the supposed 5.6 million newly-served rural persons" highlighted in the chairman's aforementioned trumpeting of the numbers.

“We’ve been tackling this problem by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and providing efficient, effective support for rural broadband expansion through our Connect America Fund," said Pai when he circulated the draft last month.

And even if the numbers had been correct, Free Press takes issue with Pai claiming the credit.

"[Y]ear-to-year changes in carriers’ capital spending plans are largely a function of what infrastructures they’ve already deployed, where they are individually in the technology cycle, and the level of competition they face. The notion that chairman Pai’s actions moved these deployment numbers in any way is wholly unsupported by the evidence, and such grandstanding does not belong in Commission Reports to Congress."

The chairman has said rolling back net neutrality rules contributed to the investment in, and rollout of, broadband, rules Free Press did not want rolled back and argues did not have that effect.

An FCC spokesperson said the FCC was "looking into" the data question.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.