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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FCC approves $4.9B in funding for rural broadband improvements – gpgmail


The FCC has just approved nearly five billion dollars in subsidies for rural broadband operators to be paid out over the next ten years. Recipients of this windfall will have to “maintain, improve, and expand” their broadband infrastructure, especially in underserved areas.

Carriers in 39 states, American Samoa, and many tribal lands will receive varying amounts of funding depending on the number of people they serve, the cost of providing that service, and so on. Naturally states with more people in rural areas receive more cash — you can see how your state made out in the chart below.

To be clear, this isn’t some spontaneous cash drop by the FCC; it has to decide how to distribute the funds it receives from fees and such, and one of the major efforts underway these days is improving rural broadband. But the specifics of how to disburse billions over a decade, who qualifies, how to verify their qualification and compliance with the terms — it’s a complex process and must be negotiated and approved, as this program eventually was.

It’s different, by the way, than CAF II and other funds, which are also directed at rural broadband but different methods, for example working directly with municipalities or contractors. I’ve asked the FCC for a bit more detail and will update if I hear back.

Rural carriers often have higher costs for deployment and maintenance, and have to pass that cost on to their subscribers. Considering rural broadband often has lower speed and reliability than urban connection, these poor folks end up paying more for less. The fund is meant to defray those costs, both for carrier and subscriber. If Uncle Sam is paying half the bill to roll out new fiber, that means the bottom line for Joe Six-Megabit goes down a bit too (ideally). Sure, it’s kind of trickle-down economics, but it doesn’t have to trickle far.

North and South Dakota are getting the lion’s share of the fund, with a combined $1.3 billion headed their way, and some 96,000 homes and businesses to be served. That’s an average of about $13,000 per site over ten years, or $114 per month per site. Sounds reasonable when you work it out that way — this isn’t just a subsidy but an investment.

Iowa, Minnesota, and Texas all are getting quite a bit as well, but don’t be jealous if you’re in, say, California, which is only getting $13 million over a decade to serve 1,300 new sites. There’s plenty of internet money swirling around California — it’s places that have more land than cash that the FCC needs to help out.

Here’s the full list of amounts and locations:


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New Nvidia Shield TV Box Passes Through the FCC


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Google announced Android TV years ago, but only a few device makers even attempted to make boxes running the software. Some, like Razer, saw their efforts fall flat. Nvidia has seen some success with its line of Shield Android TV boxes, and a new version may have just visited the FCC. The FCC docs call this mysterious piece of hardware the “NVIDIA Corporation SHIELD Android TV Game Console P3430.”

Nvidia has produced two revs of the Shield Android TV. The first one launched in 2015 with a remote and a game controller. In 2017, Nvidia launched a new version of the console with a smaller footprint and the option of purchasing without a game controller. Based on the limited data in the FCC filing, the new Shield doesn’t look like a radical change. 

Both existing versions of the Shield run on the Nvidia Tegra X1 chip. That’s an eight-core ARM chip with four Cortex A57 cores and four Cortex A53 cores. You’ll notice those CPU designs are a few years old. Nvidia hasn’t made major changes to the Tegra X1, but it does still have an impressive custom Maxwell GPU. That’s probably why Nintendo chose it for the Nintendo Switch. 

The regulatory label for the new Shield from the FCC docs.

According to the FCC filing, the new Shield will have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which is not exactly a shock. There aren’t any images of the hardware, either. All we can really glean from the FCC report is that there’s a new Shield, and it’s probably coming soon. A 2019 launch would fit with the previous two-year update cycle, too. 

The new Shield is rumored to have the Tegra X1 T214 processor. That’s the same variant Nintendo is using in the upcoming Switch Lite and the improved SKU of the classic Switch. It has the same configuration, but design improvements should make higher clock speeds and lower temperatures feasible. 

While the Shield is an Android TV box, one of its primary reasons for being is to push Nvidia’s GeForce Now game streaming service. Nvidia has been trying to make this work for years, but it might be running out of time now that Google is on the verge of launching Stadia.

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