When Clara Parkes zooms in on the map of Maine the Federal Communications Commission uses to purportedly show access to various levels of broadband internet service in different geographic areas, the lines of green, yellow, orange and red remind her of yarn.
Parkes, an author of seven books about wool and knitting, is particularly attuned to the issue of internet access because, from the farmhouse in Brooksville where her great aunt once lived – and where the FCC map shows an orange thread running along her property signifying slow internet connectivity – she simply can’t be confident of conducting a Zoom lecture to a knitters’ guild or a library talk about her latest book.
Parkes is one of several Mainers who are sharing their stories of poor internet access as part of an effort to get the FCC to update its map to more accurately reflect the inadequacy of internet service in many areas of the country, particularly rural areas. Two consumer-oriented groups, the Rural Assembly and the Broadband Connects America Coalition, are gathering the stories to include in public comments to the FCC.
The need for an accurate broadband map is even greater now that so many Mainers are working, studying or seeking health care services from home during the coronavirus pandemic, said one Maine official promoting the effort.
When she needs a reliable internet connection, Parkes goes to Portland, where she maintains an apartment in the West End. At first, Parkes figured that it would be a temporary situation, and that internet service in Brooksville would improve “any day now.”
Nine years later, she’s still making the three-hour drive, organizing her work so the highest-bandwidth tasks can be done in Portland. Back in 2001, she was publishing a weekly email newsletter to 35,000 subscribers, something that might take seconds in Portland but hours in Brooksville.
“If the connection broke while it was sending, I had to go in, read the log file, find out who was the last person to receive the email, and restart it, then pray that the connection wouldn’t die,” Parkes said. “It was like, ‘No, I can’t do this.’ ”
Peggy Schaffer, executive director of the ConnectMaine Authority, is particularly interested in having Mainers share stories that fall into two categories: First, locations that the FCC map shows as being served at 25/3 levels (at least 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload) but in fact are not; and second, those who have a 25/3 connection but it’s proving inadequate when two or more people are at home using the connection.
“The FCC doesn’t usually hear a lot of stories about people,” she said. “They get numbers.”
Stories that show how upload speeds of 3 Mbps are not up to today’s needs for remote schoolwork, telecommuting and gaining access to telehealth services could go a long way toward updating the FCC’s 25/3 benchmark adopted in 2015, Schaffer said.
The FCC first set a standard of 4/1 in 2010, so an update seems appropriate now that five more years have passed, she said.
“There’s a push to redefine what is considered adequate service,” Schaffer said. “Especially with COVID, today’s uses realistically are much higher.”
An updated benchmark would reclassify more areas as unserved by broadband, and thus make such communities eligible for grants or other funding. It also could lead to more attention paid to areas currently listed at 25/3, she said.
The comment period ends Thursday. Schaffer said the input should lead to an annual report from the FCC that paints a more accurate picture.
Even so, the challenge in rural areas is that, by definition, they are sparsely populated. Long distances and low density make for costly infrastructure; companies in the business of providing internet service can’t make a suitable return on the necessary investment.
“So without subsidies, those people will not get connected,” Schaffer said. “The solution is to combine subsidies and resources in a way that could bring better broadband solutions to people.”
The FCC map is supposed to help the agency fulfill its mission of deploying broadband “to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion,” according to a mandate of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Trouble is, the map paints an inaccurate picture and tends to overstate broadband access in rural areas.
So whereas the latest annual report issued by the FCC in April claimed that only 18.3 million Americans lack access to decent internet service, a study published in February by BroadbandNow conservatively estimated the number at 42 million after manually checking a sample of addresses deemed covered by the FCC. A study by Microsoft in late 2018 pegged the number of people who “do not use the internet at broadband speeds” much higher, at 163 million, after examining actual activity rather than reported availability.
“That’s part of the challenge in the broadband space right now, is that the best estimates are better than guesses, but they’re not firm estimates,” said Nick Battista, senior policy officer with the Island Institute, a Rockland-based economic development group involved in rural broadband initiatives. “We know that they’re pretty significantly under-counting.”
The FCC knows its maps are inaccurate. The reasons are twofold: First, the maps rely on figures self-reported by industry, through a requirement that is not audited or available for public inspection. Second, FCC methodology assumes that if one household has available broadband coverage, then a geographical cluster known as a census block (generally containing between 600 and 3,000 people) is reported as having coverage.
The FCC defines adequate coverage, represented by green lines on the map, as 25/3 service. An orange line, signifying areas of slow connectivity, means less than 10/1. Yellow means somewhere in between. Red means no access to the internet is available.
Making the picture even fuzzier, the FCC collects advertised rather than actual internet speeds.
Why does that matter?
“I think the most significant consequences are if somebody’s using those maps to determine eligibility for funding,” said Battista, who also serves as chairman of ConnectMaine board. “If you’re using data that doesn’t show the full extent of the problem, and shows people are served who are not actually served, then those people (or internet providers interested in serving them) aren’t in line for subsidies from the FCC.”
Recognizing this problem, Congress passed the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act last December to improve the process for collecting information about broadband coverage. Part of that collection effort involves feedback from consumers, states, municipalities and tribal governments.
Sen. Angus King, an independent, serves as co-chair of the Senate Rural Broadband Caucus. At the bill’s passage, he said having good data is critical for making the proper investments.
“This is a critically important step that will make sure we’re investing in the right places to close the digital divide and bring all of the internet’s opportunities to Maine people,” he said.
The town of Long Island, in Casco Bay, recently voted to borrow money to build its own fiber optic network, to be run by Consolidated Communications, formerly known as Fairpoint. A bond of $550,000 is to be paid back with a fee on subscribers, so taxes won’t go up.
“I hope we are laying a model,” said Mark Greene, one of the approximately 215 year-round residents of the island. “Everyone recognizes the significance of not having an adequate system, particularly in a little place like this.”
Parkes, the knitter and author who divides her time between Brooksville and Portland, says decent broadband connectivity should never be a wedge between natives and folks from away.
“It’s another form of a public utility that everybody needs,” she said. “As a lot of the traditional jobs become threatened, having adequate internet will be vital not just for the summer visitors, but for the 15th-generation Mainers if they want to stay. I’d say it’s like the telephone, or electricity, or water service to houses. Everything needs the internet now.”