Scope of rural broadband gap

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Policymakers at the state and federal level have been working for years to improve access to broadband-quality across the country. It’s a difficult problem, especially in states with predominately rural populations. While internet service providers in Montana have made large investments in building out broadband infrastructure, and have succeeded in providing access to many rural Montanans, we are still a long way off from achieving the Federal Communications Commission’s stated goal of eliminating the rural broadband gap.

Internet service providers in Montana have made huge investments in bringing connectivity to underserved rural areas. They’ve spent more than $250 million on broadband infrastructure in the last decade, and have brought broadband to all of Montana’s rural schools. Montana ISPs are the frontline soldiers addressing this issue — but they need help to continue to build the infrastructure to serve more Montanans.

One of the first steps in addressing a complex challenge is having an accurate scope of the problem. However, the data we are relying on today may not be serving us well.

The FCC releases an annual Broadband Deployment Report, which includes a state-by-state assessment of broadband access. The 2018 report showed that 77 percent of Montanans had access to broadband Internet.

The report further broke down the data between urban and rural areas, showing broadband access for 92 percent of urban and 59 percent of rural Montanans — underscoring the urban-rural divide when it comes to broadband connectivity.

The importance of the FCC’s broadband deployment report cannot be overstated. This data is used to help allocate public funds and gives ISPs direction on where their efforts are needed.

Unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest this data is inaccurate. The FCC’s current methodology to assess broadband access is to survey ISPs to determine if any individual or business within a particular census block has broadband access. If anyone in that census block has broadband access, then it is assumed that everyone in the census block has access.

This methodology is a somewhat crude measure. In rural areas, census blocks can be very geographically large, and broadband could be available to some residents of a particular block, but not to others. Even in urban areas, it’s likely that many Montanans are classified as “covered” when they are actually not. In short, the FCC’s data underestimates the severity of the broadband gap.

A new study from Microsoft gives an idea of the degree of the FCC’s error. Rather than looking at which households could have access to broadband, this report quantified which ones actually access the Internet at broadband speeds.

For comparison’s sake, overall the FCC’s 2018 deployment report estimated that about 803,000 Montanans have access to broadband Internet. However, Microsoft’s data indicate that only about 319,000 Montanans are accessing the Internet at broadband speeds. That would indicate that only 40 percent of Montanans who have access to broadband are actually using it.

A county-level analysis shows even starker disparities. For example, according to the FCC data, 99 percent of residents of Park County have broadband access. But Microsoft’s usage analysis shows that only 19 percent of those residents using broadband. Meagher County is another example — the FCC estimates 97 percent have broadband access, but only 11 percent access the internet at broadband speeds.

This disparity is a problem because the FCC’s data determines where public funding is allocated. By overestimating broadband access in some areas, they could be leaving people behind.

There is no doubt that measuring broadband access is a difficult task. The current FCC did not create this problem — this methodology was passed to the commission from previous administrations. However, with better technological capabilities, it’s time for the FCC to update this process.

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, is the chairman of the Montana House Energy, Telecommunications, and Federal Relations Committee.

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