Broadband Internet: FCC's Data Overstate Access on Tribal Lands

GAO-18-630 Published: Sep 07, 2018. Publicly Released: Sep 07, 2018.
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Fast Facts

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.

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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Communications Commission 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)
Closed – Implemented
In 2018, GAO reported that FCC collects and uses data that capture broadband availability to measure broadband access on tribal lands, leading to overstatements of broadband access on tribal lands. Specifically, FCC's method of collecting mobile and fixed broadband data from broadband providers-the Form 477, which is the Commission's primary method of collecting nationwide broadband data does not accurately or completely capture broadband access on tribal lands because it: (1) captures nationwide broadband availability data-areas where providers may have broadband infrastructure-but does so in a way that leads to overstatements of availability, and (2) does not capture information on factors that FCC and tribal stakeholders have stated can affect broadband access on tribal lands, such as affordability, service quality, and denials of service. Some tribal officials stated that inaccurate data have affected their ability to plan their own broadband networks and obtain federal broadband funding, and most of the tribal stakeholders GAO interviewed identified a pressing need for accurate data on the gaps in broadband access on tribal lands in order to ensure that tribes can qualify for federal funding and to effectively target the areas that need it most. GAO also reported that FCC requested comment on potential changes to modernize its Form 477 data collection as part of a 2017 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, but FCC officials indicated that the Commission did not have a timeline for issuance of a final rule. Therefore, GAO recommended that the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission develop and implement methods for collecting and reporting accurate and complete data on broadband access specific to tribal lands. In 2022, GAO confirmed that FCC launched a new effort (the Digital Opportunity Data Collection) to collect more accurate and complete broadband data. Specifically, FCC has required that providers submit more granular broadband availability data, reducing the likelihood of overstatements of broadband coverage. In addition, FCC has required that providers submit more complete data related to the quality of their broadband service, such as broadband latency. Finally, FCC has developed a process through which consumers as well as state, local, and tribal governmental entities may challenge and thus improve the accuracy of coverage maps and broadband availability information submitted by providers. FCC has outlined its process for creating and regularly updating broadband coverage maps based on the data submitted and verified through the Digital Opportunity Data Collection effort. Broadband providers must submit the more detailed broadband availability data to FCC by September 1, 2022. By collecting more granular broadband availability information, FCC will improve the accuracy and completeness of its nationwide broadband data, including data specific to tribal lands, thus meeting the intent of GAO's recommendation.
Federal Communications Commission 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)
Closed – Implemented
In 2018, GAO reported that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did not have a formal process to obtain tribal input on the accuracy of provider-submitted broadband data, despite concerns that the data overstated broadband availability on tribal lands . In the National Broadband Plan, FCC highlighted the need for a targeted approach to improve broadband availability data for tribal lands, to include working with tribes to ensure that information is accurate and useful. About half of the tribal stakeholders GAO interviewed raised concerns that FCC relied solely on data from providers, and most stated FCC should work with tribes to improve the accuracy of FCC's data. These stakeholders identified several ways in which FCC could work with tribes on this issue, including, among other things, conducting outreach and technical assistance for tribal stakeholders to raise awareness and use of FCC's broadband data. FCC officials GAO interviewed stated that they provide some outreach and technical assistance to tribal officials at regional and national workshops. GAO concluded that without a formal process to obtain tribal input on its broadband data, FCC is missing an important source of information regarding areas in which the data may overstate broadband service on tribal lands. Therefore, GAO recommended that FCC 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. In 2020, Congress passed the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act (Broadband DATA Act), which, among other things, required that FCC establish a user-friendly challenge process through which the public and state, local, and tribal governmental entities can challenge the accuracy of coverage maps and broadband availability information submitted by providers. The Act also required that FCC conduct workshops and other outreach to provide technical assistance to tribal authorities concerning the challenge process and how tribal authorities can collect and submit data regarding broadband availability on tribal lands. In January 2021, FCC established a challenge process that tribal governments can use to dispute the accuracy of broadband availability information submitted by providers, as well as processes for tribal governments to submit data depicting broadband availability on tribal lands. FCC provided outreach and technical assistance on the challenge process. Specifically, FCC held technical assistance workshops for tribal entities on December 8, 2021, and July 26, 2022, which included information on how to submit broadband data and how to challenge provider-submitted data regarding broadband availability on tribal lands. According to FCC officials, FCC expects to provide additional educational resources and technical assistance to tribal entities throughout 2022, including the workshops required by the Act. FCC's challenge process will help ensure that FCC obtains tribal input on the accuracy of provider-submitted broadband data, which could improve the accuracy of FCC's broadband data for tribal lands.
Federal Communications Commission 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)
Open
On October 21, 2019, FCC issued a Public Notice seeking comment on the effectiveness of its tribal engagement guidance but has not yet acted on it. We will monitor FCC's future actions to identify whether FCC issues a decision on whether it needs to clarify its tribal engagement statement in response to the feedback it has received.

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