Broadband access in tribal areas is likely even worse than previously thought because Federal Communications Commission data overstates deployment, according to a new report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).
FCC data collection was already known to be suspect throughout the US, not just in tribal areas, which in turn makes it difficult for the FCC to target deployment funding to the areas that need it most.
“Residents of tribal lands have lower levels of broadband Internet access relative to the US as a whole, but the digital divide may be greater than currently thought,” the GAO wrote. “FCC data overstated tribes’ broadband availability and access to broadband service. These overstatements limit FCC and tribal users’ ability to target broadband funding to tribal lands.”
Despite the well-known broadband access problems in tribal areas, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been trying to limit the Lifeline subsidies that help tribal residents purchase Internet access. A federal appeals court recently blocked Pai’s attempt to take a broadband subsidy away from tribal areas.
The GAO report describes problems with the FCC’s Form 477 data collection, in which Internet providers submit deployment data to the commission twice a year.
The FCC provides subsidies to carriers to deploy broadband in areas where access is limited, such as through the Connect America Fund. Inaccurate data “could affect FCC’s funding decisions and the ability of tribal lands to access broadband in the future,” the GAO wrote.
“[The] FCC considers broadband to be ‘available’ for an entire census block if the provider could serve at least one location in the census block. This leads to overstatements of service for specific locations like tribal lands,” the GAO wrote.
Moreover, the “FCC does not collect information on several factors—such as affordability, quality, and denials of service—that FCC and tribal stakeholders stated can affect the extent to which Americans living on tribal lands can access broadband services,” the GAO wrote.
The FCC also “does not have a formal process to obtain tribal input on the accuracy of provider-submitted broadband data,” the report said. About half of tribal stakeholders interviewed by the GAO said it’s difficult to get information about broadband deployment directly from providers.
The GAO wrote:
For example, a representative from one tribe stated that a provider declined his requests to meet more than once a year to discuss the provider’s deployment of broadband services on the tribe’s land. A representative from another tribal government stated that some providers are very focused and transparent about their broadband plans and work with the tribe, while other providers treat tribal engagement as a “box to check” and send the tribe broadband deployment information that is not useful because it is redacted. Similarly, some tribal stakeholders stated that providers heavily redacted deployment information (which providers may consider proprietary) or required the tribe [to] sign non-disclosure agreements to access deployment data. According to one tribal stakeholder, these non-disclosure agreements could possibly require tribes to waive tribal sovereign immunity in order to view the data.
Tribal lands lag behind rural and urban areas
Despite these shortcomings, the FCC data already shows significant gaps in tribal broadband access. As of December 2016, only 64.6 percent of tribal areas had access to home Internet services with speeds of at least 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up, for example. Those speeds were available in 69.3 percent of rural areas and 97.9 percent of urban areas.
Tribal areas also have bigger broadband gaps in mobile service. While 63.7 percent of tribal areas had access to median LTE speeds of 10Mbps down and 3Mbps up, those median speeds were available in 70.1 percent of rural areas and 90.5 percent of urban areas, the FCC says.
Most tribal stakeholders who spoke with the GAO want the FCC to work directly with them to improve the data. For example, the FCC could conduct on-site visits “to observe the extent to which broadband infrastructure and services are present” and help tribes “collect their own data or submit feedback regarding the accuracy of FCC’s data,” the GAO wrote.
The GAO made some recommendations to Pai. The FCC should implement targeted data collection and other methods of getting more accurate data from tribal lands, the GAO said. The FCC should also “develop a formal process to obtain tribal input on the accuracy of provider-submitted broadband data that includes outreach and technical assistance to help tribes participate in the process.”