Wednesday, July 25, 2018

FCC map may not show how fast your broadband really is; here's a way to check it out and expand knowledge

Just how fast is the broadband service in your rural area? It may not be as fast as the new broadband map of the Federal Communications Commission, and there's a way you can test your connection and help generate a more reliable figure for your community, The Daily Yonder reports.

The FCC's new map "relies on the self-reported data of Internet service providers," write Brian Whitacre, Sharon Strover and Colin Rhinesmith. The old map "was compiled by different entities in each state with only voluntary participation from providers. . . . Providers are required to detail all census blocks where their service is available, along with the speeds available (from eight possible tiers) and technology type." Census blocks contain 30 to 500 people; the U.S. has 11 million blocks.

That would seem to be an improvement over the old map, but the new one has been widely criticized, the writers note: "Citylab released a bruising critique that focused on the imprecision associated with the search-by-address function, the lack of pricing data, and the fact that new Internet providers are left out completely. Motherboard described numerous problems that users faced, including duplicative listings of providers and inaccurate descriptions of the speeds they can provide. A piece in The Daily Yonder worried that defining satellite as broadband was problematic for rural areas. And, a Slate article emphasized that the FCC map only includes fixed (not mobile) data, and that the map does not track actual speeds – only the maximum advertised speeds, which are not necessarily representative of what customers experience."

The last point is the focus of the latest Yonder piece, which says "The map’s listing of maximum advertised download speeds does not mesh with true, on-the-ground experiences for many rural areas. This was made clear to us as we conducted focus groups of people who took advantage of rural library hotspot lending programs (we visited 24 small communities in Kansas and Maine with such programs, and conducted focus groups in nine of those. Our research, funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, examines the information and connectivity environment for rural areas of Maine and Kansas. The focus group participants commonly pointed out that only relatively slow speeds (less than 10 megabits per second) were available from their local provider, despite the FCC’s broadband map depicting the area as having access to speeds of 25 or even 50 Mbps."

There's a way for anyone to determine their actual broadband speed: the Measurement Lab of the Open Technology Institute. "This lab is a consortium of research, industry, and public-interest partners focused on providing verifiable Internet speed measurements," the authors explain. "Essentially, Internet consumers run speed tests through the lab’s website, and the data is compiled by city to paint a picture of 'true' speeds." The lab "allows tests from both mobile and fixed connections, but in our experience with rural locations the entries are dominated by the local fixed provider."
Part of table comparing speeds on FCC map with those found by Measurement Lab. Yonder article has entire table.
In most places, the lab shows the maximum speed as close to, or greatly exceeding, the speed reported to the FCC, but "These speeds are far from the typical experience for most users in these locations," the authors report. "It may be that the high-speed observation was via a dedicated network (such as a university or library) that is not available to residential customers." The Yonder notes, "Small towns and rural areas may lack representation in the open-source speed test. You may participate in the study here."

More about the authors: Whitacre is an economics professor at Oklahoma State University; Strover is a Regents Professor at the University of Texas, where she directs the Technology and Information Policy Institute; Rhinesmith is an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College.

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