Free Press Asks to Review Broadband Data

Transparency and Independent Research Will Improve FCC Analysis and Help Avoid Policy Missteps
Contact Info: 

Liz Rose, Communications Director, 202-265-1490 x 32

WASHINGTON -- Free Press has asked the Federal Communications Commission to grant interested parties the opportunity to review recent data collected on broadband subscribership.

These data were reported by all U.S. broadband providers last March and are the first data collected since the FCC made major reforms to its broadband data collection practices. These changes were made after years of widespread critique of the inadequacies of the Commission's broadband data and market analysis by consumer advocates, state utility commissions, researchers, and the Government Accountability Office.

In the request, Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner wrote that despite collecting new data that could be used to portray a more accurate picture of local broadband market competition and the factors driving deployment and adoption, the Commission's recently issued analysis makes relatively little use of the new information and duplicates the past errors of overstating the level of broadband deployment and competition.

The request asks the Commission to make the underlying data available to researchers who will sign a protective order to assuage any concerns about disclosure of confidential information. It also critiques the Commission's current treatment of Form 477 data: Under current data collection practices, the FCC allows providers to submit data confidentially without any showing that the release of the data would show "substantial competitive harm." The FCC's own rules typically require such a showing before the agency agrees not to release information to the public.

"When the FCC overhauled its broadband data collection practices back in 2008," Turner said, "there was much hope that the new information would be used to finally portray an accurate picture of the state of the U.S. broadband market and enable smarter policies aimed to promote competition and universal service. Unfortunately, it appears that the FCC is missing some key gems in this treasure trove of information. We are simply asking that outside researchers and analysts be granted access to these data. We believe this request to harness the collective power of the research community is consistent with Chairman Genachowski's commitment to run a fact-based, data-driven agency."

Specific problems and shortcomings of the Commission's analysis identified in the request include:

  • The new granular subscribership data collected could be used to indicate the level of local marketplace competition and characterize the breadth of the broadband duopoly. But the FCC did not use the new information to assess or analyze competition.
  • The maps of the number of available providers appear to have reporting errors. In many instances, the findings defy common sense and deserve further explanation. For example, there are many sparsely populated rural areas shown as having more than seven providers of residential fixed-line broadband offering service, while densely populated areas like San Francisco and New York City are shown as having one, two or three providers.
  • These maps also have anomalies such as contiguous tracts in the northeastern part of the District of Columbia showing as few as zero and as many as seven providers in an area that is less than one square mile in size.
  • The analysis also redacts aggregated data that appear to have no sensitive information. For example, the total number of lines in the state of Hawaii is redacted. Similarly, though the NTIA is poised to produce a map showing the names of each provider offering service in each of the nation's 8 million Census blocks, the FCC did not disclose the names of the providers offering service in the much larger Census tracts.
  • Shortly after the FCC released the analysis of the new broadband data, it publicly acknowledged some shortcomings, noting that the report "does not provide sufficient information to assess competition" and might lead to conclusions about deployment that are "overly optimistic."

"The FCC should be applauded for its public recognition of the shortcomings of its analysis of this new broadband data," Turner said. Some of these shortcomings might be explained with a better understanding of the Commission's methodology, but we strongly believe the underlying information has great analytical power that remains unharnessed. Allowing researchers to access the data will benefit the FCC as it moves forward to implement the National Broadband Plan. Furthermore, the Commission ought to justify why 14-month old data is afforded such a copious level of confidential treatment. In this era of openness, the agency's actions should match its rhetoric."

Read Free Press' petition for access to broadband data here: www.freepress.net/files/Free_Press_Request_for_Protective_Order_on_Form_477_Data.pdf

To see the FCC's blog on the analysis of the new broadband data: http://blog.broadband.gov/?entryId=166058

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Free Press is a national, nonpartisan organization working to reform the media. Through education, organizing and advocacy, we promote diverse and independent media ownership, strong public media, and universal access to communications. Learn more at www.freepress.net

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