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Coverage Questions Plague Rural Broadband Expansion

Editor's Note: Connected Nation believes that one of the reasons many areas remain unserved or underserved when it comes to access to broadband is because there is not accurate data. The current data does not truly reflect who has access and who does not. The following piece, written by Anthony Izaguirre, was published by the Southeast Missourian on April 16, 2019. It accurately depicts what many people and families in rural America are experiencing today.

There is a way around the notoriously sluggish internet in West Virginia. You just need a car and time.

Kelly Povroznik can tell you, when she happens to get a good signal. She teaches an online college course so hampered by unreliable connections she has had to drive a half-hour to her brother's place just to enter grades into a database.

"It added so much additional work for me, and I just don't have the time," said Povroznik, who lives in Weston, West Virginia. "I just kept wanting to beat my head into a wall."

Across rural America, a bandwidth gap separates communities such as Weston from an increasingly digital world where high-speed internet has become a fundamental component of modern life, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to economic growth and quality of life advancements.

A $4.5 billion federal grant program earmarked to expand wireless internet in rural areas was supposed to address the problem, but it's on hold while the Federal Communications Commission investigates whether carriers submitted incorrect data for the maps used to allocate grants.

The broadband maps deemed Weston, a city of about 4,000 people, too well connected to qualify for a grant -- even though the problems there are obvious to anyone who's tried to send emails from their phones or gotten lost because Google Maps wouldn't work.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel concedes the agency doesn't know for sure where the needs are most acute, calling it "embarrassing" and "shameful."

Our maps simply do not reflect the state of deployment on the ground. That's a problem," Rosenworcel said. "We have a digital divide in this country with millions of Americans who lack broadband where they live. If we want to fix this gap and close this divide, we first need an honest accounting of high-speed service in every community across the country."

Lawmakers across the country are concerned flawed, carrier-submitted maps on cellphone and home internet connectivity are crippling the effectiveness of various grant programs. In February, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin joined 10 other senators in pushing the FCC for more accurate baselines.

Disagreements over the data have led to wildly different figures on high-speed internet availability nationwide -- and a growing sense the government just doesn't know.

On one end, the FCC says more than 24 million people lack access to broadband at home. On the other, a recent study by Microsoft -- which is pushing its own approach to extending broadband to rural areas -- found 162.8 million Americans don't use the internet at high speeds, a problem pointing to cost of access, as well as lack of availability.

Part of the discrepancy has to do with how the FCC collects data. The agency considers an entire area covered if a carrier reports a single building on a census block has fast internet speeds. Experts say this method allows carriers to attract more customers by advertising larger coverage areas. Critics argue it is a poor way to determine internet speeds and have long called for more granular data.

Complaints about the wireless map have poured in to the FCC. The Rural Wireless Association, a trade group, asked the agency to investigate data submitted by Verizon and T-Mobile, suggesting the companies overstated coverage. The companies have denied doing so.

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