Without good information from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the federal government is essentially shooting in the dark when it comes to determining how to best target the allocation of resources for underserved and unserved communities. Even private sector investments are less efficient because of the lack of good data about broadband availability and pricing. That’s why the second major section of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act (AAIA), currently languishing in the U.S. Senate, aims to address the nebulous nature of broadband data at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
In this third installment of our series on the AAIA, we explore the ”Title II – Broadband Transparency” section of the Act, which requires the FCC to adopt rules to gather accurate and up-to-date information from ISPs about broadband service plan prices and subscription rates. It also requires the FCC to collect data that will allow the federal government to assess the resiliency of the nation’s broadband network in the event of a natural disaster or emergency.
Better Data is Needed
Anyone who closely follows FCC news is already familiar with the problems associated with the agency’s broadband coverage maps, which most experts agree overstate actual broadband coverage. Though recent studies indicate there may be as many as 41 million people who lack access to fixed broadband in the United States that meets minimum speed of 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps), the FCC claims that number is closer to 18 million. It’s a big discrepancy with big dollar implications, as the coverage maps are the basis upon which agencies and states make major funding decisions.
The problem lies with the FCC’s existing Form 477, which seeks service availability data from ISPs. There’s widespread agreement that the form gleans data that is inaccurate, outdated, and misconstrued, as we detail here, with one glaring example being that it allows ISPs to claim an entire census block as being served even if only one residence in that block could have access to service. Although the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act was signed into law in March of this year to get more granular data and improve transparency, the GOP-led FCC has yet to deliver. Immediately after the DATA Act was signed into law, outgoing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that because Congress didn’t appropriate any related funds, the FCC would be unable to implement the Act. The FCC has enough control over its internal funds that if Chairman Pai had wanted accurate maps, the agency would have created them.
The “Broadband Transparency” portion of the AAIA seeks to remedy the situation by appropriating $24 million to the FCC to get the job done and goes further than what is required under the DATA Act by requiring the FCC to gather information on ISP pricing, which includes “any additional taxes and fees.” It also requires the FCC to revise the rules, if necessary, to "verify the accuracy of data submitted."
Beyond the detailed information on broadband coverage and pricing, the bill also requires the FCC to collect “data necessary to assess the resiliency of the broadband Internet access service network in the event of a natural disaster or emergency,” though it doesn’t say exactly how or what data should be gathered.
Distribution and Protection of Data
Of course, it’s one thing to require the FCC to collect this data. But the question of who has access to that data goes to the heart of transparency. In Section 2003, the bill addresses that, requiring the FCC to make the data available to federal agencies; state agencies such as broadband offices and public utility commissions; local governments; and individuals and organizations “conducting research for noncommercial purposes or public interest purposes.”
The last part of Section 2003 directs the FCC to not share the data unless “the Commission has determined that the receiving entity or individual has the capability and intent to protect any personally identifiable information contained in the data.”
Lastly, under Section 2005, the bill requires the FCC to issue rules “to promote and incentivize widespread adoption of the broadband consumer labels” the FCC established in 2016 and that broadband consumer labels should be provided in “a simple-to-understand format describing the key factors consumers need to know when considering broadband service, including: price, data allowances, speeds, and management practices.”
Finally, the bill would require the FCC to hold a series of public hearings to “assess how consumers currently evaluate [I]nternet service plans and whether existing disclosures are available, effective, and sufficient.”
Although the “Broadband Transparency” section of the bill may not get the media focus that other big ticket items in the bill will get, Matt Wood, Vice President of Policy and General Counsel for Free Press Action, sums up its significance succinctly:
While the deployment and financing strategies will understandably draw attention in an infrastructure bill, its digital equity, affordability and pricing transparency provisions are just as essential or more so for getting everyone online.
Read the full series below: