Entering your address in the broadband map will call up a list of providers who say they serve your locality. If the information is wrong, you can file a challenge. (FCC National Broadband Map)

Living as a retiree in rural Western Pennsylvania, John Ferketic has come to understand something the pandemic made crystal clear to all of us: high-speed Internet connectivity (broadband access) is essential to fully participate in the 21st century.

Unfortunately for Ferketic, and millions more like him, he lives on the wrong side of the digital divide.

At his Venango County home in Kenderdell, halfway between Pittsburgh and Erie, Ferketic has grown increasingly frustrated with his slow Internet connection – an experience recently highlighted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette documenting an all-too-common occurrence across rural America.

When he went online recently to check the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) new broadband availability map, his home was shown to be adequately served, – not by one – but by three different Internet service providers (ISPs).

The thing is: Mr. Ferketic knows that the FCC map is “totally incorrect, grossly wrong.” He really only has one choice – and an inferior one at that: service from a provider that uses an antiquated copper-based connection known as DSL; a technology so outdated that the big telecom providers have been ditching it for more modern technology (where it’s profitable enough to do so).

For an Internet connection to be considered high-speed, the FCC says the minimum is 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mpbs upload. But speed tests have shown Ferketic’s DSL line gives him a little less than 3 Mbps download and a measly 0.7 Mbps upload.

Since the FCC released its new broadband availability maps, the agency opened an online portal where states and local governments, as well as broadband-starved citizens like Ferketic, can submit challenges to notify the FCC of the map’s inaccuracies. The idea is to fix the map and not just take the self-reported claims of Big Telecom at face value.

In a cruel twist of irony, so far Ferketic hasn’t been able to submit a challenge. And that’s because his “connection timed out because the (FCC) webpage couldn’t load fast enough.”

And this isn’t just some academic exercise for tech nerds or a hobby-horse for retirees. The FCC maps will be used to determine how much each state will get to build new broadband networks out of the $42.5 billion set aside in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the most costly part of what the Biden-Harris administration calls the “Internet for All” initiative.

This funding is supposed to bridge the digital divide once and for all. But it won’t – if funds aren’t directed at areas that need it most or are just handed over to the monopoly providers who helped create the divide in the first place.

Experiences like Ferketic’s are beginning to resonate with state leaders across the nation.

“As a small rural state, Vermont really needs the FCC’s maps to show the reality of the Internet we know and live with, not a desktop picture based on best-guess data,” is how Vermont Department of Public Service Commissioner June Tierney puts it.

Similar grumblings are coming out of Colorado’s state broadband office, which is filing 13,000 challenges to the FCC’s maps. Brandy Reitter, executive director of Colorado’s state broadband office notes, “13,000 is a lot but likely doesn’t include all missing locations.”

That’s why Reitter, along with broadband advocates across the country, are encouraging citizens to help the FCC get the maps right.

“While the FCC maps are an important resource, they only show reported broadband availability from ISPs who chose to provide their data,” Reitter said. “(We) need help from the public to understand what is being advertised as being available to customers vs. what they are actually receiving as far as speeds and service at their location.”

It’s finally starting to dawn on policy-makers what broadband experts have known for years: no one knows precisely where broadband is available – or not. And the people with the best information are end-users residing in local communities, not the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.

There are three practical things citizens can do to help fix this right now.

1.      Go to the FCC broadband availability map here to see if it accurately reflects what, if any, service is available at your home. If the information is inaccurate, we at ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative have created short, how-to videos, and a walk-through guide that explains how to file a challenge. Links to that can be found here.

2.      Ask your congressional and state leaders to lean on the FCC to extend the challenge filing deadline beyond January 13. Meanwhile, Texas State Comptroller Greg Hegar is officially petitioning the FCC to do just that – “slow (the challenge process) down to get it right.” Vermont Broadband Office deputy director Robert Fish said, “NTIA should send states the minimum $100 million they are guaranteed. But the rest of the money should not be divvied up until it’s clear the problems with the map are fixed.”

3.      Let your senators know that we need to break the 2-2 deadlock on the FCC and confirm GiGi Sohn’s nomination asap. Gigi would be a strong voice pushing the FCC to do better while advocating on behalf of ordinary Americans instead of deeply disliked telecom monopolies.

Mr. Ferketic asks: “How can these politicians ignore this?” If enough of us challenge the status quo and demand better, they won’t be able to.

Sean Gonsalves is a senior reporter and editor with the Institute for Local Self Reliance Community Broadband Networks Initiative.

Christine Parker is the GIS and Data Visualization specialist for the Institute for Local Self Reliance Community Broadband Networks Initiative.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reversed the upload and download speeds John Ferketic’s Internet service. This article has been corrected to state that Kerketic received 3 Mbps download and 0.7 Mbps upload.

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