Broadband Internet:

FCC's Data Overstate Access on Tribal Lands

GAO-18-630: Published: Sep 7, 2018. Publicly Released: Sep 7, 2018.

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Contact:

Mark L. Goldstein
(202) 512-2834
goldsteinm@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
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The Federal Communications Commission collects data on where broadband (high-speed) Internet access is available in the U.S. This access aids economic growth and education.

Residents of tribal lands have lower levels of broadband Internet access relative to the U.S. as a whole, but the digital divide may be greater than currently thought. 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.

We made three recommendations to FCC to improve the accuracy of its broadband data and better engage tribes.

Map of Federally Recognized Tribal Lands

This visual is a U.S. map showing where federally recognized tribal lands are located in the 50 states.

This visual is a U.S. map showing where federally recognized tribal lands are located in the 50 states.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Mark L. Goldstein
(202) 512-2834
goldsteinm@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) collects data on broadband availability from providers, but these data do not accurately or completely capture broadband access on tribal lands. Specifically, FCC collects data on broadband availability; these data capture where providers may have broadband infrastructure. However, 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 (see figure). FCC, tribal stakeholders, and providers have noted that this approach leads to overstatements of broadband availability. Because FCC uses these data to measure broadband access, it also overstates broadband access—the ability to obtain service—on tribal lands.

Overstatement of Broadband Availability in FCC's Data

Overstatement of Broadband Availability in FCC's Data

Additionally, 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. FCC provides broadband funding for unserved areas based on its broadband data. Overstatements of access limit FCC's and tribal stakeholders' abilities to target broadband funding to such areas. For example, some tribal officials stated that inaccurate data have affected their ability to plan their own broadband networks and obtain funding to address broadband gaps on their lands. By developing and implementing methods for collecting and reporting accurate and complete data on broadband access specific to tribal lands, FCC would be better able to target federal broadband funding to tribal areas that need it the most and to more accurately assess FCC's progress toward its goal of increasing all Americans' access to affordable broadband.

FCC does not have a formal process to obtain tribal input on the accuracy of provider-submitted broadband data. In the National Broadband Plan , FCC highlighted the need for a targeted approach to improve broadband availability data for tribal lands. As outlined in the plan, such an approach would include working with tribes to ensure that information is accurate and useful. About half of the tribal stakeholders GAO interviewed raised concerns that FCC relies solely on data from providers, and most stated FCC should work with tribes to improve the accuracy of FCC's data. Establishing a formal process to obtain input from tribal governments on the accuracy of provider-submitted broadband data could help improve the accuracy of FCC's broadband data for tribal lands.

Why GAO Did This Study

Broadband furthers economic development, educational attainment, and public health and safety; however, residents of tribal lands have lower levels of broadband access relative to the U.S. population. Congress has prioritized identifying and targeting funds to unserved areas. FCC uses data from broadband providers to develop maps and reports depicting broadband availability in the United States, with specific information on tribal lands. GAO was asked to review FCC's efforts to collect broadband data for tribal lands.

This report examines the extent to which: (1) FCC's approach to collecting broadband data accurately captures broadband access on tribal lands and (2) FCC obtains tribal input on the data. GAO interviewed stakeholders from 25 tribal governments or tribally owned providers, and visited nine tribal lands. The selected tribes varied geographically and in levels of broadband availability, among other characteristics. GAO also reviewed FCC's rulemakings on broadband data and interviewed other tribal stakeholders, FCC officials, and 13 non-tribal broadband providers selected to include a diversity of technologies. Provider and tribal interviews were based on non-generalizable samples.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making three recommendations to FCC, including that it collect and report data that accurately measure tribal broadband access as well as develop a process to obtain tribal input on the accuracy of the data. FCC agreed with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Mark L. Goldstein at (202) 512-2834 or goldsteinm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: On August 6, 2019, FCC issued a report and order and a further notice of proposed rulemaking focused on improving FCC's broadband data. The report and order directed an FCC contractor, in coordination with FCC offices and bureaus, to establish the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, which requires fixed broadband providers to submit more granular geographic data (polygons) depicting their service areas. The filings must reflect the maximum download and upload speeds actually made available in each area. FCC also noted that for the purposes of this data collection, service is actually available in an area if the reporting fixed provider has a current broadband connection or it could provide such a connection within ten business days of a customer request, without an extraordinary commitment of resources, and without construction charges or fees exceeding an ordinary service activation fee. The broadband provider must also be able to establish a connection within this timeframe to every end-user location contained in the reported broadband coverage polygon. FCC also directed its contractor to develop a mechanism to verify the data and to collect input from tribal governments and the public on the data. FCC sought comment on establishing technical parameters when considering whether service could be made available in an area, and stated that it would consider the results of this effort and determine whether to apply it to mobile broadband providers as well. FCC also sought comment on how its contractor could assess coverage disputes, and how it should best incorporate input from tribal governments on broadband coverage maps. We will continue to monitor FCC's implementation of these efforts.

    Recommendation: The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should develop and implement methods--such as a targeted data collection--for collecting and reporting accurate and complete data on broadband access specific to tribal lands. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: FCC concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. When we confirm what actions FCC has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should 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. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: On October 24, 2018, FCC announced the appointment of 19 Tribal members and eight FCC members to the FCC's renewed Native Nations Communications Task Force. The Task Force, according to FCC's website, "will help the Commission fulfill its commitment to increase access to broadband and other communications infrastructure deployment and services on Tribal lands." According to FCC officials, FCC has tasked the Native Nations Communications Task Force with helping evaluate the effectiveness of the tribal engagement obligation, and expects the task force to provide FCC with its findings and recommendations by Spring 2020. We will continue to monitor FCC's implementation of these efforts.

    Recommendation: The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should obtain feedback from tribal stakeholders and providers on the effectiveness of FCC's 2012 statement to providers on how to fulfill their tribal engagement requirements to determine whether FCC needs to clarify the agency's tribal engagement statement. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

 

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