Comcast becomes latest ISP caught providing false coverage data to FCC.
Big quote: “[Comcast] decided to contest the challenge before conducting a serious investigation into the validity of the challenge. Anyone can make a mistake, but the choice to defend that mistake rather than correct it is a conscious choice that stems from the fact that you can gain everything and lose nothing by adhering to high demands.” — Harold Feld, Senior Vice President. consumer advocacy groups Public Knowledge.
Last week, a small-town broadband provider admitted to lying to the FCC about its coverage map specifically to prevent a competitor from getting a government grant to upgrade its services in the area. But it’s not just the smaller providers that lie to the Commission. Comcast was caught this week sending false coverage maps for several Colorado regions.
Matthew Hillier, an engineer with 30 years of experience at several telecommunications companies, told Ars Technica that he discovered What FCC coverage map testified that Comcast offered a report to his address, although this was not true. When he contested the lawsuit, Comcast doubled down, telling the FCC that it did offer services to the house despite Hillier’s claim.
The FCC took no action other than telling Hillier he had 60 days to deal with Comcast. In the meantime, he changed his address on the map to “waiting”. He didn’t even consider taking the lawsuit after Hillier sent the Commission screenshots from Comcast’s website showing his place of residence was not secure.
“I provided evidence from Comcast/Xfinity’s own systems that my address was not served by this ISP, even though Comcast/Xfinity told you so… I expect more from a government agency like the FCC. [than] just say, “Go figure it out and let us know what happens,” he wrote to the FCC.
It wasn’t until Ars contacted the public relations department of the giant broadband provider that the company gave in to Hillier’s challenge. But the fact that he disputed his claim shows a desire to dominate the smaller companies that provide for these remote communities.
Public Knowledge’s vice president of consumer advocacy Harold Feld told the Ars it was “one law for the rich and one for the poor.”
“Let the poor person fill out the wrong form for Lifeline or ACP. [the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program]and we hear screams of waste, Congress is holding hearings, Republicans are ranting, and Democrats are struggling to show how strong they are in fighting fraud. But when we see systemic abuse (or at least sloppy compliance) by carriers of FCC processes, crickets,” says Feld.
“Anyone can make a mistake, but choosing to defend that mistake rather than correct it is a conscious choice that stems from the fact that there is everything to gain and nothing to lose by adhering to inflated demands.”
However, Hillier’s address was only one in the Quartz Loop division in Arvada, Colorado. There are dozens of homes in his area that are still listed as serviced by Comcast but are not being serviced. There are only two wired broadband providers in the Hillier area, TDS and Lumen (CenturyLink).
The Comcast scam is not limited to Arvada. Ars examined a FCC map and matched several addresses in the nearby Fort Collins and Golden, Colorado areas with Comcast’s online availability checker and found dozens of homes labeled “invalid address”, meaning the company had submitted false coverage in The Federal Communications Commission to these cities too.
Unlike Ohio’s small, independent Jefferson County Cable, which was caught cheating last week, Comcast operates nationwide. These are just three regions in Colorado. It is not known how many other areas in the US Comcast falsely claims service. It is also not known how many other national carriers are doing the same.
The FCC coverage map has over one million disputed addresses. However, it is not possible to know if this is an accurate count because the contestation of the error is targeted. A small provider or community cannot claim that an operator does not serve the entire region or even part of it. Going to one address at a time is like scooping out a sinking boat with a spoon.
There are over a million contested FCC broadband card claims that still need to be cleared.
This question is important because the rural and sparsely populated areas of the United States have always been the last in line for communications. Many regions don’t even have a broadband Internet provider, and those that do usually have top speeds below 50Mbps. Hillier said his community is lucky to get 60Mbps download speeds and 5Mbps upload speeds from CenturyLink.
With fear of the coronavirus and many people working from home, Congress finally saw this shortcoming and tried to fix it by allocating tens of billions of dollars to improve and expand broadband for communities in need. This left the FCC with the responsibility of determining who would receive the funds.
The FCC then directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to distribute grants to ISPs in need. NTIA bases ISP needs on data collected by the FCC and provided by major and minor carriers. These coverage maps are taken without verification, so the FCC honestly trusts the vendors, but it doesn’t happen.
Only now it has become known that many operators falsify their coverage maps in order to prevent competitors from receiving these funds. To make matters worse, the NTIA deadline for contesting coverage expired on January 13th, as the NTIA wants to start making grants by June 30th. The only way to fairly distribute this taxpayer-funded project is to scrutinize the areas of coverage submitted by companies more closely. This means conducting audits on a massive scale, which is a big problem when it comes to government work.