Editorial: Broadband Providers Overstate Coverage

  • Corey Chase, a telecommunications analyst with Vermont's Department of Public Service, checks the app on the phones he is running in Royalton, Vt., on Nov. 15, 2018. Chase drives throughout the state collecting strength of broadband signals. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Can you hear us now? We have some shocking news. It appears the companies that provide cellphone and high-speed internet service routinely overstate the size of their coverage areas.

To think.

We imagine it’s been quite some time since anybody in the Upper Valley has fallen for this marketing folderol, regardless of the number of ads they’ve seen sporting colorful maps showing nearly universal broadband internet and cellphone coverage. But if you do know people who still believe the hype, call them and let them know it’s not true — if you can get a cellphone signal, that is.

Staff writer John Lippman recently reported on Vermont’s bid to get a more accurate — and independent — read on the state of the state’s mobile broadband coverage. That project entailed a Department of Public Service employee spending a month and a half and racking up 7,000 miles driving all over the state and testing coverage with half a dozen cellphones. The effort was necessary because a 2013 study by a consultant, which reported that more than 90 percent of the state’s homes and businesses could receive a cellphone signal, proved wildly optimistic. The same goes for a more recent set of coverage maps provided to the Federal Communications Commission by the six mobile phone companies that serve Vermont. When combined by the FCC, those maps claimed to show that most of the state received “adequate” coverage, which every Vermonter knows just isn’t the case.

New Hampshire had the same problem, prompting U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, to join Republican senators from Mississippi and Kansas to introduce the Mobile Accuracy and Precision Broadband Act to challenge the inaccurate maps disseminated by internet and cellphone companies. “Ensuring that all Granite Staters have access to broadband is critical to the success of our people and businesses in the 21st century economy,” Hassan said in co-sponsoring the bill.

The Twin States, of course, have not been singled out for this deception. Broadband internet access is being misrepresented all across the country, particularly in rural areas.

A recent study by Microsoft looked at the internet speeds available to people using its services, such as Office software, Bing searches and maps, and Xbox games. As The New York Times reported earlier this month, that study found more than 160 million Americans unable to use the internet at broadband speeds. The FCC, by stark contrast, says broadband internet is not available to just 25 million Americans. The problem with the FCC numbers, the Times reported, “is that they rely on simplistic surveys of internet service providers that inherently overstate coverage. For example, if one business in an area has broadband service, then the entire area is typically considered to have broadband service available.” This is untrue, of course, but obvious only to those who understand the arcane technical concept of hills.

This issue is about more than being able to play the latest version of Call of Duty or Madden NFL. The Microsoft study incorporated unemployment data and showed a strong correlation between joblessness and low rates of broadband use, according to the Times. Businesses, schools and health care providers, among many others, desperately need high-speed internet access if they are to participate in modern society. Closing the “digital divide,” the Times reported, “is seen as a step toward shrinking the persistent gaps in economic opportunity, educational achievement and health outcomes in America.”

To its credit, the FCC recognizes this and is in the process of reviewing ways to improve its broadband data. That’s critical, because the data will be used when deciding where and how to distribute billions in federal funding to improve and expand broadband service in rural communities.

Corey Chase, the well-traveled telecommunications infrastructure specialist with the Vermont Department of Public Service, told Lippman that a more accurate map of broadband coverage in the state would help it make the case that it is eligible for some of that funding. Even then, though, there’s no guarantee that companies will take advantage of the money to provide or expand coverage in the state. They may decide that, even with federal support, it’s just not worth it to fully serve rural communities.

We may need more than just accurate maps, it seems, to finally bridge the digital divide.