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Broadband DATA Act: A Step Forward, but Doesn’t Go Far Enough to Solve FCC Data Problems

March 6, 2020 , , , , ,

This week, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill, the Broadband DATA Act, aimed at improving the Federal Communications Commission’s data collection process for broadband mapping. Since the bill has already passed the Senate, but will return due to procedural reasons, we will likely see the Senate pass this bill soon and then send it to the President’s desk for a signature.

The bill dictates the type of information that internet service providers (ISPs) must annually report to the FCC. This data informs the FCC’s national broadband map, which shows the parts of the country that are served and unserved by ISPs. The national broadband map helps policymakers, including state legislators, members of Congress, and FCC Commissioners, understand the scope of the digital divide and adopt policies that help fill the gaps. For example, the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will allocate $20 billion of funds to communities based on the map and other concerning factors. (By the way, you can tell the FCC to make RDOF fairer for states here.)

The bill is designed to fix problems with the FCC’s data collection process. The FCC’s current process includes collecting information from a form that ISPs submit to the FCC called Form 477. There are a host of problems with Form 477 data that can lead to ISPs overstating their coverage. For example, in December, the Commission released a report documenting the scope of broadband providers overstating their coverage claims. This is a vicious cycle—bad data in, bad data out.

The bill reflects bipartisan agreement that we need more accurate broadband maps, and Public Knowledge supports legislation to fix inaccurate mapping. However, this legislation does not go far enough in requiring ISPs to report granular data. If Congress requires ISPs to provide better and more transparent data, many of the broadband mapping issues will diminish. The government currently does not have the information it needs regarding broadband services, but ISPs do. This bill is a missed opportunity by Congress to pass much stronger legislation for consumers.

The bill requires that ISPs report “download and upload speeds” and “latency” of their broadband service. However, a stronger bill would require ISPs to submit much more granular information to the FCC regarding the quality of the services they provide. This would allow the FCC and the public to get a more realistic picture of what consumers experience daily. ISP reporting requirements should include:

  • Actual speeds deployed to customers. Otherwise, ISPs can report their advertised or offered speeds, which is often much quicker than actual speeds consumers experience. This has led to many examples of overstated and false coverage. Some people argue that it would be very hard or even impossible for ISPs to report the actual speeds they provide, but this argument fails. Either ISPs have information on actual speeds and refuse to report it, or ISPs do not have this information and have been allowed to advertise speeds they cannot verify. Requiring this information will help the FCC better understand the national broadband landscape.
  • Latency, which measures delays in data transmission.
  • Pricing data. ISPs should submit the prices they charge consumers after the introductory rate, including all below-the-line fees (e.g. equipment rental charges). Consumers are too often in the dark about the price of broadband, cannot afford the service, or purchase a service and then get charged dramatic fees. If the FCC collects pricing data, it can then use this information to determine whether the broadband market is sufficiently competitive and affordable (spoiler alert: it is neither). It is also critical that the FCC have the authority to act on behalf of consumers when market forces and competition fail to deliver quality broadband at just and reasonable rates.
  • Data caps. This information will show the maximum amount of data that can be reached over the network until the ISP starts throttling (slowing down) the data transmission and/or charging customers more. This behavior even occurs under some “unlimited data plans.”
  • Network security, such as instances of breaches and other compromises of consumers’ private information.
  • Subscription data, including how many people subscribe to the service.
  • Service denials, to show if ISPs deny their service to certain locations or communities.
  • Network reliability. The FCC should have information to assess the reliability of our networks, and consumers should also have this information before subscribing to a service. Without strong network reliability, customers have had to go hours without being able to call 911 or their loved ones due to “sunny day” outages.
  • Network resiliency. Congress should require the FCC to collect data necessary to assess the resiliency of our networks, which would show how prepared the network is for potential outages, such as during a natural disaster. This would allow the FCC to hold ISPs accountable for unpreparedness during power outages and other instances of public emergencies. It would also empower consumers to choose a provider (if they have that market choice) based on its preparedness for potential network outages.

The Broadband DATA Act is a big step forward, but this bill overlooks some of the data collection that can be most beneficial to consumers. Congress and the FCC should continue to introduce legislation and publish rules that strengthen the broadband data collection process. They should take advantage of the current bipartisan momentum to fix the broadband maps and implement bold, smart, and effective strategies to more accurately map broadband, help consumers, and ultimately close the digital divide.

Image credit: Flickr user tuexss


About Lindsay Stern

Lindsay Stern is a Policy Fellow at Public Knowledge. Prior to joining PK, Lindsay was a legal intern at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in the office of Senator Dick Durbin, as well as at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, and Street Law, Inc. Lindsay received her J.D. from The George Washington University Law School, where she was a member of the Federal Circuit Bar Journal, and received her B.A. in Government at Franklin & Marshall College. She also spent a semester studying at the University of Edinburgh. Lindsay was born and raised in New York. She is a yoga and frozen yogurt enthusiast.