FCC broadband maps challenged as overstating access

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., is flanked by his family as he is sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence during the swearing-
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., is flanked by his family as he is sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence during the swearing-in re-enactments for recently elected senators in January on Capitol Hill. (ALEX EDELMAN/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

It’s no secret some rural Iowans struggle to connect with high-speed internet.

With broadband internet speeds crucial to telemedicine, precision agriculture and economic development, the first step in addressing the need for expanded services is identifying where they’re lacking.

But while the Federal Communications Commission reports that 90 percent of Iowans have access to the FCC benchmark for “advanced broadband,” or 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds, a Microsoft report argues only about 30 percent of Iowans actually use broadband.

The report was compiled by Microsoft using FCC data.

Zach Cikanek, national spokesman with Connect Americans Now, an organization pushing for expanded broadband, said it’s likely some people with access to broadband simply choose not to have it, but argued the large majority of that gap is because of poor data collection by the FCC.

“I think it’s fair to argue that most people, if they had access to broadband, would use broadband. Maybe not all, but most,” Cikanek said. “It starts to paint a very compelling picture of a huge disparity between where we think rural communities are connected and where they’re actually getting service.”

According to Microsoft data:

l The FCC reports that 99.9 percent of Linn County residents have access to broadband, but only 41.9 percent actually connect to broadband speeds.

l The FCC reports that 96.1 percent of Johnson County residents have access to broadband, but only 45.6 percent of people connect to broadband.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing to discuss the state of the nation’s broadband maps, which are created using data submitted by service providers.


U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the committee, said the FCC mapping process leads to overstated nationwide connectivity.

He added that accurate mapping is critical, as it is used by federal agencies when distributing funding and support. Inaccurate maps waste those resources and stifle rural economic development, he added.

“We’re one-fifth through the 21st century ... we ought to be able to get all Americans connected,” Wicker said. “To close the digital divide we need to have accurate broadband maps that tell us where broadband is available and where it is not available at certain speeds.”

Current FCC maps collect data based on census block and, in addition to including where broadband speeds are available, the maps also include areas where service could be expanded without “extraordinary costs.”

“That sets a very low bar,” Cikanek said. “Perhaps somebody could cover the region, but they’re not. From a consumer perspective that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.”

Jonathan Spalter, president and chief executive officer of the United States Telecom Association, which represents broadband providers including AT&T, CenturyLink and Windstream, said a new, more granular, map must be created before companies can properly address the digital divide.

“Simply put, our nation still lacks a comprehensive connectivity map that can indicate with precision where high speed broadband is available and where it is not,” Spalter said during the Wednesday hearing. “The current yardstick, collecting data by census block, is inadequate. It means if a provider is able to serve a single location within that block then every location is considered served.”

Following the hearing, Wicker asked participants to provide responses to all questions by April 24.

A draft of the FCC’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report released in February notes that the digital divide between those with and without access to broadband speeds has “narrowed substantially.”


According to the draft report, the number of people without access dropped by more than 25 percent from 2016 to 2017.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a February statement that closing the digital divide has been “the FCC’s top priority.”

“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.”

Last year, the FCC approved $1.49 billion in support, through the Connect America Fund Phase 2, to help providers expand broadband into eligible areas nationwide. Funds will be distributed over a 10-year period.

However, Connect Americans Now argues that, despite the FCC and U.S. Department of Agriculture spending more than $22 billion in subsidies and grants, the nation’s broadband availability remains comparable to what it was in 2013.

The February release states the FCC was expected to vote on the 2019 report in the coming weeks, but Mark Wigfield, deputy director of the FCC’s office of media relations, said in a Wednesday email the commission still was reviewing the report. No date has been set for a commission vote on the report, he added.

Iowa connectivity varies depending on the source:

A U.S. News & World Report article last year named Iowa the best state in the country, citing a number of factors, including access to health care, economic opportunity and infrastructure.

Within the infrastructure category, the report states that 99.9 percent of Iowa households have access to broadband speeds of 25 Mbps or faster — ranking Iowa first in the nation.


In addition, the FCC’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report found that 92.3 percent of the nation’s residents had access to 25/3 (download/upload speeds) in 2016. In Iowa that year, 90.5 percent of residents had access to that level of broadband.

Meanwhile, BroadbandNow, an organization that collects and analyzes internet provider coverage and availability, found 88 percent of Iowans have access to wired broadband speeds of 25/3 Mbps or faster, according to November data. With an average statewide speed of 29.8 Mbps, Iowa ranks 33rd in the nation in connectivity.

In addition, a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly one in four rural residents said access to high-speed internet is a major problem in their area.

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