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  • Guest: Sascha Meinrath

  • Company: Penn State University

  • The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion by clicking below.

    Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of the Broadband Bunch. Our guest today is one of the most widely renowned technology policy experts anywhere in the world. He founded the innovative think tank X-Lab, which is focused on the intersection of vanguard technologies and public policy. Recognized internationally for his work over the past two decades, our guest has been an angel investor, social entrepreneur and community internet pioneer. He’s been named to the top 100 in Newsweek’s Digital Power Index, and also Time Magazine’s Tech 40 as one of the most influential figures in technology. Among his many projects, and perhaps most importantly for our discussion today, he co-founded Measurement Lab (M-Lab), a global online platform for researchers to deploy internet measurement tools that empower the general public and key decision makers with useful information about broadband connectivity. Ladies and gentlemen, the Palmer Chair in Communications at Penn State University, Professor Sascha Meinrath.

    Craig:

    We could talk about so many different things given what we’re going through now – about how technology and access to internet connectivity is a necessity. But specifically broadband mapping is on the minds of many with the spotlight that has been put on the need to have broadband access for distance learning, for telehealth, you name it, in the current Covid-19 world that we live in. Timely and accurate broadband mapping is a topic that is important for many reasons. You have spent a lot of time on this and it’s something that goes back many, many years. Give us a little bit of the background on when broadband mapping came to the forefront.

    Broadband (Access) Mapping Background

    Sascha:

    The earliest broadband maps I’ve seen are from 1969, 1970, and could be drawn on the back of a cocktail napkin, (which I’m fairly certain they were). In essence, mapping of internet and internet connections has been with us since the very beginning of the internet itself. That said, we’ve sort of moved away from broadband mapping, especially as we have entered the, I would say, post-research era of the internet. Beginning in 1995, we switched from it being kind of a research platform, a government-run network or an educational network, to what in essence is the internet that we know today. And unfortunately, when we made that shift, we moved away from all of the data collection components of, in essence, managing, experimenting, expanding the internet itself.

    Sascha:

    So, between 1995 and today, we’ve seen a constant diminution, a lessening of the data and knowledge about what’s actually happening with the networks itself. And in addition to that, we’ve sort of outsourced that and made it proprietary. So what little information we have is really housed within the companies that are building out the networks themselves and is not available both to the general public, to you and I, but also is not available to key decision makers.  This means that decision makers are making, in essence, the best decisions they can without knowledge, and that concerns me.

    Craig:

    And the data that they eventually get is also, on average, 18 months old?

    Broadband Data is “Exceedingly Exaggerated”

    Sascha:

    The Federal Communications Commission collects information from internet service providers, or ISPs, every six months. But it takes the FCC about two years to release that data publicly. But more than that, one of the big problems that we’re seeing is that while the FCC requires companies to provide self-reports of where they are offering broadband services and what speeds are available in those service offerings, there’s no verification of the accuracy or precision of these data.

    Sascha:

    What our data is showing, and we have a lot of data, is that over time ISPs have become increasingly hyperbolic in exaggerating what speeds are available and where those speeds are available.  At one point in the last data collection effort, the FCC’s official maps showed universal 100% gigabit connectivity across six states! It was only when public interest groups, non-government officials, questioned the data very publicly and said, “This is so absurdly inaccurate. It can’t possibly stand!” that the FCC decided to remove that one provider’s data from its dataset, but still refused to actually verify the accuracy of all the other data that they’ve collected.

    Sascha:

    The official maps and the official assessments based upon self-reported data by the ISPs, data that we know to be exceedingly exaggerated, have now become the stand in for our official measure of how successful or not we’ve been in deploying broadband. The on the ground reality is that a huge number of Americans are facing a situation where they are told officially that broadband exists, when in fact, it does not.

    Craig:

    For example, using the FCC data, you would be led to believe that 98% of the nation has service. We know that’s not true, and especially in light of the need now with the schools being out and having to use distance learning, upwards of 20% of students across the country don’t have access. We know that to be the case. How did we ever get away from a system that would allow validation? or challenge what is collected? Or in essence, allow the refusal to use scientific methodology?

    Broadband Connectivity Data Collection Not Scientific or Verified

    Sascha:

    Keep in mind that for the vast majority of the Internet’s history, the scientific and research community led data collection efforts. The history of the internet and the success of the internet as core technologies is predicated upon scientists and researchers following the data.  Then making improvements based on an empirical basis supported by a scientifically sound, evidentiary trail. We don’t do that now. There was this moment where improvements were made, under this guise of we are a best effort network and our goal is doing the best we can to increase connectivity, increase capacity, and increase the quality of service offerings for everyone.

    Sascha:

    We don’t do that today. We sort of substitute in a proxy, which is that market forces will provide a service based upon what makes sense and what people want and et cetera. And unfortunately, when we started that process, when we moved away from what worked, really taken off in about 2005, we went in 2005 from being pretty much the first in the world in terms of our broadband speeds, service provisioning, universality of service. We were at the head of the class, and here we are 15 years later and we’re middling. Which is to say our official policies and the trajectory that we’re on is one that if we were running a race, our coaches would be profoundly concerned about our increasingly lagging progress.

    Lagging Universal Broadband Connectivity Has Clear Educational, Economic and Safety Issues

    Sascha:

    And yet, in the case of broadband connectivity, it’s been one that we have systematically ignored through Democratic and Republican commissions alike. And even though many of us have been pretty vociferous in saying this will have profound implications, this has enormous opportunity costs and it presents a very real danger to underserved communities. Dangers in terms of educational and economic outcomes, but as coronavirus has now made very clear, dangers in terms of life and safety as well.

    Sascha:

    When I look to the future, when I think about what does a 21st century economy look like, it’s very clear that connectivity will be integral. It already is. And when I look at rural communities that have been systematically underserved or entirely unserved, and I think what does that mean for the future of that rural community’s economy? I’m looking at a series of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of communities that are economic “dead men walking”. There will be no mechanism by which that economy will be able to thrive. Not in some distant future, but over the next half decade.

    Systematic Widespread Broadband Investment

    Craig:

    When you look at the reality that internet connectivity, availability of broadband is no longer a luxury. It’s essential. It’s something that is required for long-term viability by communities, by organizations. And when you look at the fact that you’ve been so involved dealing with staff members and commissioners of the FCC,  and your position, years ago, that the country needed to invest hundreds of billions of dollars years in broadband then, and that was, in essence, laughed away.

    Sascha:

    In fact, [I] built up a whole series of initiatives, bringing this to the fore. I worked with everyone up through and including the CTO of the United States of America, on pushing for systematic broadband investment starting actively in 2008 forward. And the sad reality is, had we been very systematic and thoughtful about this, had we, for example, laid big fiber along our roadways when we dug them up and repaved them, it would cost pennies on the dollar what we’re now going to be forced to spend. And even 12 years ago, this was our argument – it was saying, “Look, if we do this wisely, we can do it for really cheap. It will take us some time, but we can do it cheap.” Well, that luxury of time is now completely gone and so now we’re going to have to pay the hurry up costs to catch up.

    Sascha:

    Unfortunately, what I worry about is even if Congress does allocate 30 to $50 billion as part of the next traunch of coronavirus response funding, that’s really a drop in the bucket compared to what we need to do. The reality is that the opportunity costs – the damage wrought by our failure to make massive public investments in a critical infrastructure, that is the only option for preventing cataclysmic economic collapse across a huge array of communities in the United States – that [cost] is not well understood or appreciated by the powers that be.

    Accurate Broadband Connectivity Data Ensures Impactful Funding Allocation

    Craig:

    You mentioned the relationship between having accurate data and being able to distribute the funds are substantial. When you look at the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the Connect America Fund, etc, billions of dollars that are ready to be used. If those funds are not allocated appropriately where they need to go, then it’s sort of good money after bad. Talk about that.

    Sascha:

    Without an accurate assessment, without knowledge about where pinpoint expenditures of funds need to go, you, in essence, are throwing darts at a dartboard while drunk. It’s like how would you even know where to put our funds if you don’t know what the on the ground reality is? And that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re allocating billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to solve the problem, to help alleviate the digital divide without knowing where these digital divides are greatest or even exist. And so, it’s not that those funds will have no impact, it’s more that they are guaranteed to be at least partially and possibly quite substantially squandered because we don’t know what the on the ground reality even looks like.

    Sascha:

    I, and many others, have said, look, step one should be due diligence. And step one to any new allocation of resources should be putting the scientific and research community, or at the very least, An independent group of assessors in charge of doing the assessment about what the needs are, where the needs are, what the on the ground truth actually looks like. And somehow this idea of collecting empirically sound data and making decisions based upon what these data tell us, that’s become awkwardly the radical position in Washington D.C.

    Sascha:

    You can imagine the political conundrum that folks face. If you’re running the Federal Communications Commission and you were to collect much more accurate and precise information about the true nature of broadband connectivity in the United States, then your assessment on your watch would be that America has regressed in its broadband connectivity. And so time after time,  what people in charge have wanted to do is to show progress, and so have erected a scaffolding forever more hyperbolic statements about what the state of broadband connectivity is out of fear that they themselves would look bad if they had a more accurate mapping of what what’s really going on. That is a terribly self-reinforcing and detrimental process.

    Craig:

    What you’re saying is that there is zero incentive from their standpoint to actually embrace the scientific methodology that would give accurate data, accurate information, even though you’ve probably heard from both sides of the aisle an admission that the data that exists now that’s being used for the allocation of funding is not good data.

    Correcting Broadband Mapping – Winning the Battle, Losing the War

    Sascha:

    Correct.  We’ve won that battle. We spent years, years, telling people the broadband mapping systems that we have set up are inaccurate and imprecise and that’s a problem. And for years we were told, “You guys are loonies,” but now there is a consensus. Everyone, pretty much everyone, acknowledges our broadband assessments are inaccurate and imprecise. That is a huge win. It’s a necessary win. It’s simply insufficient to actually solving the problem. Now what we need is bold action to meaningfully correct and improve our broadband mapping assessments, and I’m not yet seeing that. I’m seeing marginal improvements that will do very little to meaningfully move the needle and to guarantee accountability around this issue of what broadband service looks like in the United States.

    Craig:

    What will it take to get people from both sides of the aisle to realize that it will take some pain, it will result in some discomfort to go through the process that we have to make, to get where we need to be? How do we solve that problem?

    Hold Broadband Service Providers Accountable for Accurate Data

    Sascha:

    The good news is there are a huge array of different levers that we could pull that would greatly improve the accuracy and precision of our data. Let me give you one example that I think is kind of a no brainer, but it shows you just how dysfunctional things have become. The Meinrath plan would be that the FCC should request exactly what they’re requesting right now. Tell all the ISPs self-report anything you want, the speeds and availability as you wish to report it to us.  But if you tell us that there’s service in this area, and you tell us that the speeds are, let’s say, 10 or 25 or a hundred megabits per second, you must supply that service at market rates to the people in that area. What I’m saying is let’s hold ISPs to account for the data that they themselves are reporting to the FCC.  Which is to say that you can’t knowingly lie to the FCC and get away with it, which is our current national policy.

    Sascha:

    So, what would this do? This would mean that an ISP would actually vet their own data. Instead of just giving whatever they wanted to the FCC, and ISP would say, “Look, whatever we tell them we’re actually responsible for therefore, we will err on the side of under-reporting”.  This would give us a far more accurate and precise map of where broadband is and what speeds are available than the current unaccountable system whereby you can report anything you really want, and the FCC just takes it as the reality. All that’s required, is not a new expenditure of funds, nor new money from any taxpayer in the country – but requiring / placing the onus on the ISPs to be responsible for the data that they themselves are choosing to report to the Federal Communications Commission.

    Craig:

    Knowing that one aspect of this equation is the desire, in many cases, to keep competition as far away as they can. How do you solve that aspect of the issue?

    Sascha:

    That’s right. So you’ve put your finger on one of the key issues, which is that right now if a provider says, “Hey, I already offer service in this area,” then it’s very difficult to get funds if you’re a new market entrant to serve that area. And what this means is that there is a competitive rationale for lying to the FCC, especially because there’s no accountability or detrimental impact from doing so. And because of that we get all sorts of over-reporting. It’s sad but true.

    Broadband Funding Exclusion Zones with Minimal Capacity

    Sascha:

    So what we have right now are programs like the Connect America Fund, that are saying, in essence, “Look, we will give you taxpayer funds to provide sub-broadband service, 10 by one connectivity, via a pretty problematic platform, like a satellite connection.”  If a provider takes the money and declares that they serve your area, then your area can never get additional support to actually build out a network that would qualify as broadband by the FCC’s own definition. Which is to say that we exclude areas that we’ve provided minimal capacity to from ever receiving government funds to bridge the digital divide. And that’s pretty dysfunctional.

    Sascha:

    And, again, that’s our official policy right now. So when you look at CAF2 funds and the problematic exclusion zones they create, you’ll see that all across the country you have this kind of shrapnel like areas that you cannot receive future funds to provide broadband service, even when the services that are currently being offered don’t qualify as broadband connectivity.

    Craig:

    Based on what you have found in your research – crunching numbers and hundreds of millions of speed tests over the years – you’re finding that the digital divide is actually going the wrong way. It’s growing larger in rural areas around the country.

    Broadband Digital Divide is Actually Growing

    Sascha:

    Correct. One of the phenomena that we have looked into and found massive evidence behind – (and keep in mind that we collect about 750,000 broadband speed tests from across the United States every day, so this is a massive data set, we have a quarter of a billion tests every year that we’re basing these kinds of assessments on) – what we’ve found is that over the last half decade, speeds in the United States have improved, but mostly they’ve improved in urban areas. But the reporting by ISPs about what speeds are available have increased dramatically and that it’s increased dramatically according, again, to the self-reports of ISP fairly equitably.

    Sascha:

    What happens if on the ground speeds are improving slowly in rural areas, but we are reporting to the FCC that they’re increasing dramatically? The divide between what we are told is available and what actually is adopted in rural communities has grown explosively, not by 10 or 20%, but we’re seeing large swaths of the United States where those numbers, the differential of what is being reported as available versus what actually is adopted on the ground is off by 250, 500 or more percent?

    Sascha:

    Which is to say you have large sections of the country where we’re being told that 100 megabit service is universally available, and yet the fastest speed reported in those same areas, the fastest speed is under 10 megabits per second. That’s a real problem. And I don’t know necessarily everything that accounts for this. What I do know is that phenomenon, where there’s these huge gaps between what ISPs are self-reporting is available and what people are adopting on the ground, is far greater in rural communities than it is in urban areas. And that points to a phenomenon. Something is happening there. Our call is to say, “Look, we need to get to the bottom of this. Why is this digital divide, which was far less existent in prior years, growing so explosively over the last half decade? And how do we ameliorate that? How do we address that new reality?”

    Broadband Connectivity – The Great Unifier

    Craig:

    When you look at what can be done by the average citizen from sea to shining sea, there are deserts of broadband availability. How do average Americans make their voices heard? How can they impact this discussion?

    Sascha:

    The single most important thing to do is to hold your congressional “critter” to account. Which is to say, honestly doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, doesn’t matter about your views on social and economic issues. Broadband connectivity is one of these great unifiers. And as such, when folks from across the political spectrum start rattling their sabers and telling elected officials, “We’re pretty upset that you have not addressed this problem,” it prevents a rare united front whereby elected officials get very worried. There’s a lot of power in making known that this is a priority for the individual constituent and that folks are pretty unhappy with the current state of their broadband connectivity. And honestly, at this point that’s probably the best thing you can do.

    Sascha:

    Now, in terms of how you get something done for your home connection, one of the mistakes that I constantly see people make is to call customer service of their ISP. Or I should say the mistake they make is to just call the customer service if their ISP. What I do is when I’m calling the customer service of my ISP, I’m also simultaneously filling out the complaint form for the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, each of which only takes about three to five minutes. As long as I’m listening to that “craptacular” hold music, I might as well be doing something productive. But more importantly, more importantly, once you file that complaint, you will often receive an immediate response by your ISP, and the best possible response by your ISP.

    Sascha:

    Which is to say, if you want to cut out a lot of angst from already over busy lives, filing that complaint, making it official, ensuring that the company must take notice of you now, is a great way to get an executive account manager, or somebody else that actually has the power to fix the problem that you are calling about in the first place.

    Craig:

    That is great advice, and especially knowing that we are at a turning point, given what we’re going through, not just as a country but globally with the coronavirus and the increased demand placed on being able to work remotely, to learn remotely, to have telemedicine, right down the line. I think this is a golden opportunity to hold their feet to the fire and make it happen.

    Sascha:

    There’s great solidarity here. In many ways we are told that everything is fine here and then I assume that whatever problem I’m having, it must just be me or my house, or me and my friends. But the fact is things are going awry across the board for millions of Americans, not just in broadband connectivity, but across a variety of different sectors. So, if we were talking banking, I’d be giving much of the same advice, like, “While you’re on hold, file a complaint.” And if you’re talking about healthcare, I’d be like, “Yeah, absolutely. While you’re being run around on hold, file a complaint.” And, in essence, what we’re saying is we’re not going to allow our problem to be brushed under the carpet and treated as some sort of unique case, but are aggregating these every day frustrations and ensuring that they’re properly documented in the systems that are supposed to be looking out for our best interests.  I’m really heartened to see so many people attending to this critical broadband infrastructure problem that we have in the US today.


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