How a Desperate FCC Could Get You Better Internet

Crowdsourcing better information

Key Takeaways

  • The FCC is now pushing for users to download and test their internet using its official internet speed test app.
  • Experts say that the recent attempts to gain internet coverage data are a shot in the dark, but could provide cleaner information than ISP reporting.
  • Some experts believe the FCC is now pushing for consumer interaction because of past issues with ISPs inflating their coverage numbers.
Someone holding a tablet showing the results of an internet speed test on the screen.

justocker / Getty Images

Experts say that the FCC’s recent attempts at crowdsourcing internet coverage data is an act of desperation as it fights to close the broadband divide.

The Federal Communications Commission recently has started pushing for users to provide information about their internet data speeds, even going so far as to release an app that you can use to measure your home internet connection.

Much of this move, experts say, is fueled by the FCC’s desperate attempts to provide more open and transparent information about the current broadband performance throughout the United States. 

"The FCC has resorted to crowdsourcing broadband speed data out of complete desperation," Tom Paton, founder of BroadbandSavvy, told Lifewire in an email. 

"Without a significant regulatory overhaul, they have no way of verifying what speeds are available at every address in America, handicapping their ability to help people who are stuck with slow internet."

Error and Inflation

For years now, the FCC has relied on internet service providers (ISPs) to provide information about the country’s bandwidth. There are some problems with this method, though.

A snail on an network cable.

aluxum / Getty Images

"There is no law specifying that these measurements must be made using a certain methodology. There is no requirement for ISPs to report on how they actually measure broadband speeds, and the FCC does not audit the data—it basically takes ISPs at their word." Paton explained.

The issue with taking ISPs at their word? Many of them have inflated their coverage numbers to make it look like they provide better speeds to neighborhoods than they actually do. Instead of breaking down the measurements more clearly, ISPs previously based their reports by zip code.

This meant that the ISPs could take entire neighborhoods and measure their connectivity based on the best connection in the area—even if it only went to one house.

Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of the inflation that ISPs have used to bolster their coverage was when BarrierFree provided massively incorrect data to the FCC, claiming to have provided broadband services to more than 62 million users.

"There is no requirement for ISPs to report on how they actually measure broadband speeds, and the FCC does not audit the data."

The inflated numbers were branded an error by the ISP, but with no real audit process in place, data like this has the potential to slip through and make its way into official reports.

Paton says that although similar accusations have been levied against some of the more major ISPs in the country, this was one of the most egregious cases.

The primary way ISPs measure broadband coverage was updated in 2019, but other problems with the measurement system come from ISPs pushing the FCC to omit slower data speeds during reports.

And Paton claims that the new system still allows ISPs to inflate coverage information by focusing on their advertised maximum speeds, despite the average speeds often being much slower.

A Shot in the Dark?

With so much attention focused on closing the broadband divide, it makes sense for the FCC to look into other methods of gathering the data it needs. Unfortunately, Paton says this data still suffers from some inconsistencies.

"The creation of the FCC speed testing app is a shot in the dark because the data it reports back to the FCC could be affected by any number of factors influencing an individual's internet speed at the time they run the test," he told us.

Illustration of an internet speed test on a smartphone.

Oleksandr Hruts / Getty Images

There are a lot of variables to take into account when testing your internet speeds. Are you using Wi-Fi or are you hardwired? Is the connection to your neighborhood congested by others trying to access the internet when you are?

If you test during off-peak hours, you could provide a higher-than-normal speed to the FCC, which could lead to further skewed results. 

Because there are so many factors affecting your internet speed, Paton believes the FCC will need to clean up the data somehow before it can be used to properly measure broadband coverage. Still, it should provide clearer information than relying on ISPs turning in their own numbers.

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