The FCC has vastly overestimated rural broadband availability, according to a new report from the Center for Rural Affairs. The commission has been relying on Form 477 data in gauging where broadband is available for purposes of the Connect America Fund and Universal Service Fund programs.
Individual states also have relied on that data. But the Center for Rural Affairs report author outlines several problems with using that data for that purpose. It’s an issue that others also have raised, but the Center for Rural Affairs report does a particularly thorough job in explaining the issue.
Rural Broadband Availability
As the author of the Center for Rural Affairs report explains, broadband providers are required to file Form 477 twice yearly to summarize the census blocks they serve. In order to list a census block as “served,” providers must offer service to at least one household in the block (which may contain between 600 and 3,000 people) or must state that the block could be served without “an extraordinary commitment of resources,” according to the report.
The author notes that there is no formal definition of what “an extraordinary commitment of resources” means.
“The resulting misinformation is especially acute in rural areas, where a census block may encompass hundreds of square miles,” the author states, adding that there are more than 3,200 census blocks that are larger than the District of Columbia and eight that are larger than the entire state of Connecticut.
“Because homes and businesses are spread widely throughout these blocks, the accuracy of Form 477 data can be very weak,” the author says.
The upshot, according to the report, is a “significant overstatement of broadband availability, especially in rural areas,” and reliance on this data “makes it impossible” for policymakers to efficiently deploy Universal Service funding and other resources aimed at boosting broadband availability in rural areas.
“Any serious policy effort to extend broadband to unserved areas must include a fix,” the report author writes.
The report recommends requiring any future data collection and mapping to be generated at the street address or parcel level.
A less effective option that would nevertheless be an improvement over the status quo would be for state commissions to require granular data only on census blocks over a certain size, the report argues. The author notes, for example, that just 2% of census blocks — totaling 253,295 out of more than 11 million blocks – exceed two square miles of land area.
“This option may be considered by states with higher rates of broadband access in rural areas or already robust data sets,” the report says.
The possibility that census blocks lacking broadband were not recognized by the FCC because of the flaws in Form 477 data is a serious issue as the commission continues to implement changes to the Universal Service/ Connect America Fund with the goal of bringing broadband everywhere. Target areas for the recent CAF II auction were chosen using Form 477 data and if one were to believe that data, it suggests that only about 261,000 households will remain unserved in price cap carrier territories after winners build broadband to the locations for which they won funding — and that number seems unbelievably low.
The original headline for this post has been changed.