One of the cornerstones of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law this month, is the $65 billion it includes for broadband infrastructure, with $2 billion earmarked for rural communities. That money is intended to go to states and communities to bridge the digital divide.
There’s a hitch in the plan, however. The agency tasked with carrying out that plan, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), doesn’t have the information it needs to make sure all that money is spent where it needs to be. They don’t have accurate maps of internet dead zones. In fact, most states don’t have that information. What the FCC does have is from telecom providers and it vastly overstates broadband coverage, particularly in rural states.
For example, the FCC’s estimate for Arkansas is that about 23% of the population doesn’t have broadband access. Broadbandnow, a data aggregation company that researches and monitors broadband, estimates that about 46% of Arkansans can’t get broadband. The FCC’s data says that 21% of Oklahomans don’t have broadband, BroadbandNow says it’s about 42%. A Mississippi official told Politico that the FCC’s estimate of availability in one of the counties there is off by 80%. But plenty of states with large areas that aren’t covered—including Ohio, West Virginia, and Michigan—have no real data about where those specific gaps are. Which means there will be delays in getting that money out.
There’s an obvious place to start for every state and for the FCC: in communities of color. The most persistent characteristic of the digital divide is that it is part and parcel of systemic racism—nearly half of all Americans who don’t have internet access at home are people of color. A report in 2016 from media and technology advice group Free Press found that “communities of color are on the wrong side of the digital divide in ways that income differences alone do not explain.”
“There are numerous possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive,” for that divide, according to research director S. Derek Turner. “The answer is not that people of color simply have a lower overall demand for internet access. Indeed, the data indicate that members of these communities who are on the wrong side of the digital divide have a high demand for internet access, but do not subscribe due largely to cost concerns.” Nothing about that changed during the former guy’s administration.
Internet service providers (ISPs) have created barriers to communities of color. “Higher adoption levels in the wireless marketplace stand in stark contrast to the market for high-speed wired-internet access, which is a duopoly at best,” said Turner. “Wired providers have failed to offer resold or prepaid services, and generally have required potential customers to undergo credit checks or make cash deposits— practices that contribute to the digital divide by exacerbating existing racial disparities in credit scoring, housing, and other economic sectors.”
The law does require that the FCC fix its maps before spending the infrastructure money, but that means more delays in the funding directed to the communities which most need it. The FCC, finally about to be under the permanent leadership of someone who gives a damn—Jessica Rosenworcel, gets it. The current information they have “stinks,” she told senators in her confirmation hearing. “For too long, the FCC’s been working off maps that are not accurate,” she said, telling senators staff was “working morning, noon, and night” to fix the data.
That’s going to be pretty important, because the $350 billion for patching up broadband as part of pandemic relief is already out there, and who knows what a lot of states are doing with it, given the lack of information states generally have to implement building out internet infrastructure. “I have a real fear that there are going to be certain communities that are going to be spending money on things with unvetted advice,” said Joshua Edmonds, the director of digital inclusion for Detroit, at a Knight Foundation event in the issue this summer. “Local communities need to be stepping up,” he told Politico. “That’s not happening. Instead what we’re getting is this war over datasets, and you know this—whoever has the best datasets calls the shots.”
Traditionally that’s been the ISPs, and they don’t have the “best” datasets as much as the only ones. The FCC’s data has relied on what they report, and they don’t report accurately. For example, on the forms the providers fill out for the FCC, they can claim an entire census block has coverage if one household in that block has internet. So where the FCC figures estimate 14 million households don’t have high-speed broadband, the reality is more like 42 million households, b BoradbandNow’s information. Since it works directly with ISPs on behalf of consumers, helping them to make decisions about purchasing coverage, they have a much clearer picture of the situation.
One state—Georgia—has gotten ahead of the game to start collecting the data themselves. Georgia began compiling data three years ago, believing that infrastructure week was actually going to happen under Trump, and has detailed information down to individual addresses. “We’re postured and we’re ready,” Mike Curtis, director of planning and strategy in the Georgia Technology Authority, told Politico. “We have everything in place—we have the vendors in place, we have the data in place, we have the providers in place. And we’ve got the money.” In comparison to other states, “We’re in graduate school. Some of these states, they’re in elementary, maybe pre-K.”
Figuring this out is critical, and whatever funds are available either from COVID-19 relief or the IIJA that can be used for data collection and planning. Otherwise, with billions available for the taking, the providers are going to figure out how to maximize their gain at the expense of the same communities who have been left behind.