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ISP admits lying to FCC about size of network to block funding to rivals

Illustration shows the shadow of a hand over the FCC's broadband availability map.

Aurich Lawson | Getty Images

Ryan Grewell, who runs a small wireless Internet service provider in Ohio, last month received an email that confirmed some of his worst suspicions about cable companies.

Grewell, founder and general manager of Smart Way Communications, had heard from some of his customers that the Federal Communications Commission’s new broadband map falsely claimed fiber Internet service was available at their homes from another company called Jefferson County Cable. Those customer reports spurred Grewell to submit a number of challenges to the FCC in an attempt to correct errors in Smart Way’s service area.

One of Grewell’s challenges elicited a response from Jefferson County Cable executive Bob Loveridge, who apparently thought Grewell was a resident at the challenged address rather than a competitor.

“You challenged that we do not have service at your residence and indeed we don’t today,” Loveridge wrote in a January 9 email that Grewell shared with Ars. “With our huge investment in upgrading our service to provide xgpon we reported to the BDC [Broadband Data Collection] that we have service at your residence so that they would not allocate addition [sic] broadband expansion money over [the] top of our private investment in our plant.”

The email is reminiscent of our November 2022 article about a cable company accidentally telling a rival about its plan to block government grants to competitors.

Speaking to Ars in a phone interview, Grewell said, “This cable company happened to just say the quiet part out loud.” He called it “a blatant attempt at blocking anyone else from getting funding in an area they intend to serve.”

It’s not clear when Jefferson County Cable plans to serve the area. Program rules do not allow ISPs to claim future coverage in their map submissions.

Jefferson County Cable ultimately admitted to the FCC that it filed incorrect data and was required to submit a correction. The challenge that the ISP conceded was for an address on State Route 43 in Bergholz, Ohio. The town is not one of the coverage areas listed on Jefferson County Cable’s website.

While checking the FCC broadband map today, we confirmed that the address is no longer listed as having Jefferson County Cable service. But that one fix alone wouldn’t prevent the company’s grant-blocking strategy from working, because the FCC map still lists the company as serving the address right next door and others on the same road.

False data hurts ISPs seeking grants

False broadband data could hurt Smart Way directly because the ISP plans to apply for grants to upgrade its network. There have been over a million challenges submitted to the FCC nationwide, and it’s unknown how many mistakes are on the map overall.

The new FCC map is supposed to show exactly which homes and businesses have access to Internet service and what types of service are available at each address. Using that data, the US government and states will decide how to allocate federal funding to projects that fill in broadband-availability gaps.

But the maps rely on Internet service providers to report where they offer service and are rife with errors that show ISPs claiming to serve more homes than they actually do. Nevada officials said they found more than 20,000 mistakes in their state alone. Vermont officials said the map is “missing or incorrectly lists the location of over 60,000 broadband-serviceable locations” and “lists service availability levels far beyond what the state has found through its mapping and what we are hearing about from residents.”

If you’d like to submit challenges, you can search for reported broadband availability at specific addresses here and use that page to file challenges. In addition to the individual submissions, state governments and broadband-focused groups have been submitting bulk challenges.

Grewell said he submitted about a dozen challenges in late November, most of which pertained to addresses purportedly served by Jefferson County Cable. He said he filed the “challenges in areas that I knew there was no fiber-to-the-home whatsoever.”

We haven’t received a response to requests for comment from Loveridge or Jefferson County Cable. But Jefferson County Cable withdrew its coverage claim at the one address referenced in Loveridge’s email after Grewell’s challenge.

“The provider subject to your challenge has conceded the challenge and is required to submit a correction for the challenged location in the online portal within 30 days,” the FCC told Grewell in an email notification on January 12.

Despite that one success, Grewell told us yesterday that he hasn’t received responses for any of the other addresses he challenged. The successful challenge at one address also didn’t trigger map updates to nearby homes, as previously mentioned.

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