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FCC admits its broadband growth figures were inflated

The agency said its estimate for the number of consumers lacking access was off by nearly 2 million

Photo (c) Pekic - Getty Images
Less than three months after the FCC reported strong rural broadband growth, the agency has come forward with an admission that those figures were inaccurate. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says the estimates published in a draft report back in February were off by almost two million.

The number of U.S. consumers without access to a fixed broadband connection by the end of 2017 was actually 21.3 million. The agency said previously that the figure dropped by 25 percent in one year, from 26 million to 19.4 million between 2016 and 2017.

The admission follows a March report from an advocacy group called Free Press, which first discovered the inaccuracy. The group found that a new ISP called BarrierFree wrongly told the FCC that it started serving nearly 20 percent of the country in just six months.

“BarrierFree’s over-reporting in this manner not only produces wildly overinflated deployment claims for itself and these eight states: it also has a substantial impact on the putative change in deployment at the national level,” the organization said. “Indeed, BarrierFree is claiming to be the only ISP offering service in 15 percent of all Census blocks that were listed as unserved in the June 2017 Form 477 data.”

“We are unable to determine exactly why BarrierFree reported in this manner, or why the Commission failed to notice this apparent grievous error before boasting about the December 2017 results in its recent press release,” FreePress continued.

The group added that this isn’t the first time it has found the FCC guilty of over-reporting.

“Free Press highlighted it explicitly in 2014, prior to the Commission taking over NTIA’s block-level deployment collection. In fact, this issue was of such concern, the Commission issued a clarification to its Form 477 filing instructions specifically telling carriers that it ‘would rely on the ordering or installation of a not-yet leased circuit . . . to provide service in a census block not currently served should not treat that census block as having service available.”

Agency responds

Pai issued a statement in which he acknowledged the inflated figures but praised the agency’s progress in closing the digital divide.

"Fortunately, the new data doesn't change the report's fundamental conclusion: we are closing the digital divide, which means we're delivering on the FCC's top priority,” Pai said. “We're achieving this result by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and providing efficient, effective support for rural broadband expansion through our Universal Service Fund programs."

The FCC has revised its 2017 broadband growth figures numbers in an updated draft.

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