broadbandThe Government Accountability Office (GAO) has joined a growing number of entities that have criticized the data that the FCC uses to determine where broadband is available. The FCC broadband availability data critique came in the form of a 50+ page GAO report about the availability of broadband on tribal lands.

The FCC recently estimated that 64.6% of people on tribal lands have access to fixed broadband service, the GAO noted in the report, titled “Broadband Internet: FCC’s Data Overstate Access on Tribal Lands.” But the report authors believe that figure is too high because it is based on data collected from service providers via Form 477, which the providers are required to file twice yearly.

FCC Broadband Availability Data
The GAO reiterates key criticisms that others also have made about Form 477 data. Service providers report broadband availability by census block but can consider the census block to be “served” even if only one household in the block has service available to it – or even worse, if the provider doesn’t currently serve anyone in the block but could do so within a “typical service interval” and without “an extraordinary commitment of resources.”

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form 477 data
Overstatement of Broadband Availability in the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 Data (Source GAO report)

Entities that have made similar criticisms of the Form 477 data include the Center for Rural Affairs, which recently penned a thorough explanation of the problem; some FCC commissioners and others. The apparent overstatement of broadband availability is of particular concern as the data is used in determining areas eligible for funding through the Connect America/ Universal Service Fund and through state funding programs.

The GAO spoke with several tribal governments in compiling its report and the majority of people interviewed were working to provide broadband services on their lands in some capacity. Accordingly, “overstating broadband access on tribal lands could affect the ability of a number of tribes to access federal funding to increase broadband access on their lands,” the GAO wrote.

The extent to which people adopt broadband depends not only on broadband availability but also depends on affordability, the GAO also argued, and here, too, the GAO found problems with the FCC’s data — or lack thereof.

The GAO made three recommendations in its report. All three recommendations were directed at FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, advising him to:

  • Develop and implement methods – such as a targeted data collection – for collecting and reporting accurate and complete data on broadband access specific to tribal lands
  • Develop a formal process to obtain tribal input on the accuracy of provider-submitted broadband data that includes outreach and technical assistance to help tribes participate in the process
  • Obtain feedback from tribal stakeholders and providers on the effectiveness of the FCC’s 2012 statement to providers on how to fulfill their tribal engagement requirements to determine whether the FCC needs to clarify the agency’s tribal engagement statement

While these recommendations are specific to tribal lands, expect to hear similar such recommendations coming from other parties with regard to the broader FCC broadband availability data.

Image courtesy of flickr user Sean MacEntee.

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