Business & Economy

The FCC has a new broadband map. Vermont officials say it vastly overstates reality.

A screenshot shows Vermont has 100% fixed broadband coverage, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Screenshot via FCC website

According to the Federal Communications Commission, more than 95% of Vermont households have broadband internet access.

That’s the main takeaway from a newly updated map created by the commission that tracks internet speeds and provider availability down to individual addresses. But officials at the Vermont Community Broadband Board told VTDigger that the database overestimates the percent of households with broadband — and that federal funding is at stake.

“I think a lot of Vermonters will be really curious to see what the FCC claims is available versus what is available in their own reality,” said Robert Fish, deputy director of the board.

The near-100% figure includes satellite internet providers such as Starlink, which the commission claims is available throughout the entire state. Fish said sure, satellite is available — “if you are north facing and cut down all of the trees and maybe blast the top of a hill to get the good coverage.” 

But even just comparing the most common forms of broadband access — wired connections such as cable and fiber, and licensed wireless providers — the Vermont board disagreed with the federal commission’s assessment of availability at multiple levels.

The Vermont Department of Public Service already sent a challenge to the FCC in October questioning the accuracy of its underlying address data. The department alleged that 11% of locations in the federal database did not match Vermont’s own database, and another 22% of addresses in the Vermont database did not appear in the federal database, according to the challenge letter.

On top of that, the commission’s data on whether a particular address has broadband technology is based on submissions from internet service providers themselves. Christine Hallquist, executive director of the broadband board, said that “self-reported” data leads to a lot of errors.

Among other problems, wireless internet companies use propagation studies –  computer-generated estimates of signal strength from cell towers – to determine how far a signal should travel. But Vermont is full of “nooks and crannies” that can block signals, Hallquist said. “Some of the telecom companies will be more optimistic than others in terms of what their service is.”

Fish said the department annually estimates the percent of Vermonters that lack wired or licensed wireless broadband with more than 25 mbps download speed and 3 mbps upload speed. In 2021, that rate was around 20%. By contrast, the FCC appears to report only 3% of addresses lack internet of that speed or higher, according to the board’s analysis of the commission data.

He said there are ways the commission could have confirmed whether service was really available where providers said it was. 

“If you… call up random phone numbers in the middle of rural Vermont, they're not going to tell you that they have 25/3 service, certainly not 100/20 service,” Fish said.

The FCC did not respond to a request for comment on its data collection practices.

Hallquist said the map is more than just a way of tracking internet access in the United States: Federal funding through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program is partially dependent on the number of addresses in the state that lack fast enough internet speeds.

A screenshot shows you can search the FCC National Broadband Map by address. Screenshot via FCC website

Vermont is set to receive at least the state minimum of $100 million, but additional funding set to be allocated in June is based on the addresses that lack 25/3 mbps through wired or licensed wireless connections, Fish said.

Hallquist said the board is hoping to engage the public to challenge the map. Individuals can file a “location challenge” or an “availability challenge” for their address on the commission’s website

The board is also working on the best way to make sure “any address that's unserved in Vermont is included on the map as unserved,” Fish said, “so we can fund our projects at the highest amount possible to make sure no one gets left behind.”

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Erin Petenko

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