No One Knows How Many US Homes, Businesses Lack Broadband Access


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How many Americans can’t buy home broadband because no ISP offers service in their area? You might think the answer to this question would be straightforward. The FCC releases reports on the state of US networks (wireless and wireline) on a regular basis, including the number of US citizens, principally in rural areas, who lack broadband service.

Unfortunately, there’s good reason to believe that the FCC’s data is wrong. That’s the conclusion of a report, conducted on behalf of the FCC, which studied this problem. The Broadband Mapping Initiative was launched in April 2019 by CostQuest, a research firm working on behalf of US Telecom. US Telecom is an industry lobby group made up of bigwigs like AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, and Verizon. The project studied broadband deployments in two states: Virginia and Missouri — to determine whether or not the FCC’s previous method of estimating how many US homes lacked broadband was undercounting the total. The answer: Almost certainly yes.

The Impact of a Lousy Measuring Method

Knowing how many US citizens can purchase affordable broadband is critical to understanding whether citizens can access the tools required for modern life. If state and federal governments don’t know which communities or areas lack service, they can’t create projects to target them for improvement. Unfortunately, the FCC has historically allowed ISPs to report whether a location was served using census block data. If one home or business in a census block could be serviced by the company, the company is allowed to claim that the entire census block can be serviced by the company.

This logically raises another question: How large is a census block? There’s no uniform answer. In cities, a census block might be one city block. In rural areas, they can be much larger. Some census blocks have zero population; others might be entirely populated by a single large apartment building. This approach to data set building might have made sense decades ago, but today we have far more precise tools at our disposal. The image below shows 10 census blocks that would be considered covered under the current categorization system:

Broadband-Service-Current

Now, here’s how much service is actually provided in each of those blocks:

Broadband-Service-New

That’s a whole lot of “Uncovered” in the “Covered” zone.

The term “fabric” refers to the new system US Telecom built for measuring which addresses were actually served for broadband. What the report found collectively is that 38 percent of the rural areas in Virginia and Missouri that supposedly have broadband service…actually don’t. At all. 61 percent of rural locations supposedly served weren’t actually in the proper location. Twenty-five percent of the supposedly served locations were actually more than 100 meters from where they were supposed to be. Twenty-three percent of the locations were attached to the wrong census block.

In Missouri, 9 percent of non-rural locations and 36 percent of rural locations lacked service. In Virginia, 12 percent of non-rural and 39 percent of rural locations were unserviced. Overall broadband availability data was wrong in 48 percent of rural blocks.

Fabric-Report

It isn’t clear exactly how big the gap is nationwide, but these findings suggest the number of people without broadband could be significantly larger than the FCC’s official estimate of 21.3 million people. A total of 445,0000 homes and businesses in Missouri and Virginia that are currently counted as having broadband access are now estimated to lack it. Expand that nationwide, and it’s going to give a much more accurate picture of who does and doesn’t have broadband. It’s also virtually certain to mean we’ve done a much worse job extending coverage than people think we have.

But if you think about it, this actually makes sense. I’ve known more than one person who moved and suddenly found themselves unable to get broadband access, despite previous assurances of service at the new address from their own ISP. Stories periodically surface of ISPs telling rural homeowners to pay tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars for new fiber pulls. I’ve met people who can’t buy broadband at their homes and rely on expensive cellular wireless for internet access, or use satellite service with its awful latency. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” but these stories surface on a semi-regular basis. It may not be a common issue, strictly speaking, but it clearly is a problem. Hopefully building better data sets will help solve it.

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AT&T and T-Mobile team up to fight scam robocalls – gpgmail


Two major U.S. carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile, announced this morning a plan to team up to protect their respective customer bases from the scourge of scam robocalls. The two companies will today begin to roll out new cross-network call authentication technology based on the SHAKEN/STIR standards — a sort of universal caller ID system designed to stop illegal caller ID spoofing.

Robocalls have become a national epidemic. In 2018, U.S. mobile users received nearly 48 million robocalls — or more than 150 calls per adult, the carriers noted.

A huge part of the problem is that these calls now often come in with a spoofed phone number, making it hard for consumers to screen out unwanted calls on their own. That’s led to a rise in robocall blocking and screening apps. Even technology companies have gotten involved, with Google introducing a new A.I. call screener in Android and Apple rolling out Siri-powered spam call detection with iOS 13.

To help fight the call spoofing problem, the industry put together a set of standards called SHAKEN/STIR (Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs), which effectively signs calls as “legitimate” as they travel through the interconnected phone networks.

However, the industry has been slow to roll out the system, which prompted the FCC to finally step in.

In November 2018, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote to U.S. mobile operators, asking them to outline their plans around the implementation of the SHAKEN/STIR standards. The regulator also said that it would step in to mandate the implementation if the carriers didn’t meet an end-of-2019 deadline to get their call authentication systems in place.

Today’s news from AT&T and T-Mobile explains how the two will work together to authenticate calls across their networks. By implementing SHAKEN/STIR, calls will have their Called ID signed as legitimate by the originating carrier, then validated by other carriers before they reach the consumer. Spoofed calls would fail this authentication process, and not be marked as “verified.”

As more carriers participate in this sort of authentication, more calls can be authenticated.

However, this system alone won’t actually block the spam calls — it just gives the recipient more information. In addition, devices will have to support the technology, as well, in order to display the new “verification” information.

T-Mobile earlier this year was first to launch a caller verification system on the Samsung Galaxy Note9, and today it still only works with select Android handsets from Samsung and LG. AT&T meanwhile, announced in March it was working with Comcast to exchange authenticated calls between two separate networks — a milestone in terms of cooperation between two carriers. T-Mobile and Comcast announced their own agreement in April.

The news also follows a statement by Chairman Pai that says the FCC will sign off to approve a T-Mobile/Sprint merger, as has been expected.

 


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