So every year like clockwork since 2011 the FCC has released a report naming and shaming ISPs that fail to deliver advertised broadband speeds. The Measuring American Broadband program, which the FCC runs in conjunction with UK firm SamKnows, uses custom-firmware embedded routers in subscriber homes to collect data on real-world speeds (an improvement from years past when the FCC would just take ISPs’ at their word).
In the years since, the program has been an effective way to name and shame ISPs that fail to deliver speeds promised to consumers. For example, in the first report, the FCC announced that some ISPs, like New York’s Cablevision, had delivered just 50% of advertised speeds during peak hours. By the next report Cablevision had moved to fix its under-provisioning issues, and the FCC found that the company was now offering more bandwidth than advertised at peak hours. In the absence of more competition, simply using real data was a useful way to motivate apathetic regional monopolies to try a little harder.
Of course last year that all changed under Ajit Pai, when the FCC boss refused to release the report at all. After being pressured by telecom beat reporters to explain why, the FCC this week finally released some of the data… buried in the appendix of a much larger report (pdf) few will actually read. The data again showcases how many broadband providers — mostly telcos selling aging, slow and pricey DSL — routinely fail to deliver speeds consumers are paying for:
In the years since the program launched, many cable providers have been successfully nudged toward over-provisioning their lines to remain on the FCC’s good side (though it should be noted that one cable provider, Charter Spectrum, was busted by the NY AG contemplating ways to game the system). This wasn’t particularly hard; DOCSIS 3.1 cable upgrades are relatively inexpensive anyway, and have helped the cable sector deliver gigabit speeds (at least downstream).
The problem is that cable is slowly but surely securing a monopoly over these next-gen speeds because the nation’s phone companies no longer really want to be in the fixed-line broadband business. AT&T and Verizon have shifted their focus to wireless, video, and ads, and providers like CenturyLink have shifted their focus to enterprise. As a result, millions of customers are stuck on aging, expensive, (and often unnecessarily usage capped) DSL lines nobody really wants to upgrade because the return on investment is too slow for Wall Street’s liking.
The result: less competition, higher prices, slower speeds, and worse customer service as cable secures a monopoly over high speeds. And no, 5G wireless is not going to magically fix these problems, as we’ve explored previously.
Of course because the Measuring American Broadband program highlighted these issues via a very clear stand alone report, it seems fairly likely that broadband providers didn’t much like this. Like so much Pai does (like killing net neutrality rules), burying the report was framed by the FCC head as a noble effort to simply improve agency efficiency. But in a statement to Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin, Pai’s fellow Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel seemed unsold on that explanation:
“We’re all frustrated when our broadband speed doesn’t live up to what was promised,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC’s only Democrat, said in a statement to Ars today. “So it’s downright unacceptable that the FCC—which has been collecting data on broadband speeds nationwide—is slow to make this information public and, when it does so, buries it in the appendices to a larger report. This is essential data for every consumer in the digital age. The public deserves better.”
The attempt to bury belated data in a study appendix nobody will read is just another example of Pai’s largely blind fealty to the industry he’s supposed to be holding accountable. From the attacks on net neutrality and FCC oversight to his efforts to literally weaken the very definition of competition, Pai continues to be the very best friend any lumbering telecom monopoly could ask for. After all, if you can manipulate or obscure data showing just how broken the US broadband industry is, it’s far easier to justify your complete and total apathy toward actually doing anything about it.