FCC un­sure who lacks broad­band

$4.5B pro­gram on hold as feds try to get ac­cu­rate wire­less picture of ru­ral Amer­ica

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - MARYLAND - By An­thony Izaguirre

There is a way around the no­to­ri­ously slug­gish in­ter­net in West Vir­ginia. You just need a car and some time.

Kelly Povroznik can tell you, when she hap­pens to get a good sig­nal. She teaches an on­line col­lege course so ham­pered by un­re­li­able con­nec­tions that she has had to drive a half-hour to her brother’s place just to en­ter grades into a data­base.

“It added so much ad­di­tional work for me, and I just don’t have the time,” said Povroznik, who lives in We­ston, W.Va. “I just kept want­ing to beat my head into a wall.”

Across ru­ral Amer­ica, a band­width gap sep­a­rates com­mu­ni­ties like We­ston from an in­creas­ingly dig­i­tal world where high-speed in­ter­net has be­come a fun­da­men­tal com­po­nent of mod­ern life, putting them at a dis­ad­van­tage when it comes to eco­nomic growth and qual­ity of life ad­vance­ments.

A $4.5 bil­lion fed­eral grant pro­gram ear­marked to ex­pand wire­less in­ter­net in ru­ral ar­eas was sup­posed to ad­dress the prob­lem, but it’s on hold while the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion in­ves­ti­gates whether car­ri­ers sub­mit­ted in­cor­rect data for the maps used to al­lo­cate grants.

The broad­band maps deemed We­ston, a city of about 4,000 peo­ple, too well con­nected to qual­ify for a grant — even though the prob­lems there are ob­vi­ous to any­one who’s tried to send emails from their phones or got­ten lost be­cause Google Maps wouldn’t work.

FCC Com­mis­sioner Jes­sica Rosen­wor­cel con­cedes that the agency doesn’t know where the needs are most acute, call­ing it “em­bar­rass­ing” and “shame­ful.”

“Our maps sim­ply do not re­flect the state of de­ploy­ment on the ground. That’s a prob­lem,” Rosen­wor­cel said. “We have a dig­i­tal di­vide in this coun­try with mil­lions of Amer­i­cans who lack broad­band where they live.”

Law­mak­ers across the coun­try are con­cerned that flawed, car­rier-sub­mit­ted maps on cell­phone and home in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity are crip­pling the ef­fec­tive­ness of var­i­ous grant pro­grams. In Fe­bru­ary, West Vir­ginia Demo­cratic Sen. Joe Manchin joined 10 other sen­a­tors in push­ing the FCC for more ac­cu­rate base­lines.

Dis­agree­ments over the data have led to dif­fer­ent fig­ures on high-speed in­ter­net avail­abil­ity na­tion­wide — and a grow­ing sense that the gov­ern­ment just doesn’t know.

On one end, the FCC says more than 24 mil­lion peo­ple lack ac­cess to broad­band at home. On the other, a re­cent study by Mi­crosoft — which is push­ing its own ap­proach to ex­tend­ing broad­band to ru­ral ar­eas — found that 162.8 mil­lion Amer­i­cans don’t use the in­ter­net at high speeds, a prob­lem that may point to cost of ac­cess, as well as lack of avail­abil­ity.

Part of the dis­crep­ancy has to do with how the FCC col­lects data. The agency con­sid­ers an en­tire area cov­ered if a car­rier re­ports that a sin­gle build­ing on a cen­sus block has fast in­ter­net speeds. Ex­perts say this method al­lows car­ri­ers to at­tract more cus­tomers by ad­ver­tis­ing larger cov­er­age ar­eas. Crit­ics ar­gue that it is a poor way to de­ter­mine in­ter­net speeds and have long called for more gran­u­lar data.

Com­plaints about the wire­less map have poured in to the FCC.

The Ru­ral Wire­less As­so­ci­a­tion, a trade group, asked the agency to in­ves­ti­gate data sub­mit­ted by Ver­i­zon and T-Mo­bile, sug­gest­ing the com­pa­nies overstated cov­er­age. The com­pa­nies have de­nied do­ing so.

The Fe­bru­ary letter from Manchin and the other sen­a­tors im­plored FCC Chair­man Ajit Pai to use crowd­sourced data and public feed­back to cre­ate more ac­cu­rate maps. Some of them have since in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion to force the FCC to widen the scope.

Fed­eral law­mak­ers from New Hamp­shire sent a sep­a­rate letter, say­ing the FCC was forc­ing cash­strapped lo­cal gov­ern­ments there to dis­prove overstated claims made by car­ri­ers in the agency’s for­mal process for chal­leng­ing the map­ping data.

All told, only about 20 per­cent of the 106 car­ri­ers, gov­ern­ment and tribal en­ti­ties who could have chal­lenged the FCC’s wire­less map data did so, ac­cord­ing to the FCC.

The process frus­trated Manchin, who told the AP in an email: “As long as we con­tinue to rely on car­ri­ers just telling us what they cover, we will never have a com­plete picture that de­picts the real-world ex­pe­ri­ences of West Vir­gini­ans.”

The FCC put the grant process for the $4.5 bil­lion pro­gram on hold late last year as it launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether one or more ma­jor car­ri­ers vi­o­lated rules and sub­mit­ted in­cor­rect maps. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing.

Christophe­r Ali, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of me­dia stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia, said the loom­ing map­ping ques­tion leaves the gov­ern­ment flail­ing blindly at a prob­lem that pre­vents it from meet­ing the needs of ru­ral Amer­ica.

“We can’t fix a prob­lem when we don’t know where it ex­ists,” he said, “and at the mo­ment we don’t know where broad­band deserts ex­ist.”

Povroznik knows they ex­ist in We­ston, where she had to come up with work­arounds — in­clud­ing jump­ing in her car — to cope with spotty con­nec­tions that dis­rupted her abil­ity to field ques­tions sub­mit­ted by stu­dents on­line. She saw some im­prove­ment af­ter switch­ing ser­vice providers.

“In this tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced world that we live in, it shouldn’t have been as dif­fi­cult as it was for me to get this sit­u­a­tion re­solved,” she said.

CRAIG HUD­SON/AP PHO­TOS

Kelly Povroznik tends to her horse Ram­bling Jack out­side of Clarks­burg, W.Va. Povroznik teaches an on­line col­lege course.

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