This week US News and World Report magazine confirmed what we all knew...Iowa is the best state in the nation! Except for one little detail...do the statistics bear out that statement, especially when it comes to broadband?
The article made quite a splash and led to lots of chest thumping by Iowa advocates in general and politicians in particular. Helping put Iowa over the top in the rankings was our #1 position in infrastructure. Iowa didn't rank particularly high in two of the three elements that were considered. We were #37 in Transportation and #5 in Energy. What made us #1, according to the magazine, was "Internet Access".
In acknowledging the honor for her state, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds gave credit in particular to Iowa's largest ISP.
“We are extremely proud that Iowa was recognized for leading the nation in access to ultra-fast broadband services,” said Governor Kim Reynolds. “As the U.S. News rankings indicate, the fact that Mediacom was willing to invest private capital to make gigabit speeds available throughout its entire Iowa service area has truly made a difference in the quality of life in hundreds of communities across our state.”
A look inside the stats...
ere were two subcategories under Internet Access that were considered. Iowa was #1 in "Ultra-Fast Internet Access", defined as the percentage of households who can get gigabit internet service. The magazine says 69.6% of Iowa households can get gigabit internet. At first glance that seems a ridiculous number, but if you drill into the statistics it starts to make sense (kind of) because of the omnipresence of Mediacom across the state.
Mediacom, which upgraded all of its CMTS's to DOCSIS 3.1 a little over a year ago, says it serves over 300 communities in Iowa, accounting for just short of 1 million households passed. According to 2017 US Census estimates, there are 1,242,601 households in Iowa. The math comes out to 80.5% of households served by Mediacom, more than the 69.6% in the magazine's rankings BEFORE counting other areas (Cedar Falls, Spencer) with gigabit availability. So, depending on the accuracy of Mediacom's reported numbers, that statistic may or may not be accurate.
Besides the potential fuzzy math, there's the issue of whether those households can actually GET a gigabit. Anecdotal evidence from customers in several Iowa communities indicates that perhaps not everyone can get a gig, or at least are told by Mediacom phone representatives that they cannot.
The statistic that doesn't seem to pass the smell test is US News and World Report's finding that 99.9% of Iowa households can get at least 25 Mbps download speeds. Again using 2017 Census estimates, that means that just 1,243 households in Iowa without access to broadband services. Really?
Apparently the esteemed publication (and the research institution that provided the data, McKinsey & Co.) need to get together with the FCC and compare notes. For example, check out the list of census block groups in a small corner of NE Iowa that are eligible for the CAF II Auction.
The FCC says these areas in Howard, Chickasaw, Winneskiek, and Allamakee Counties are eligible for CAF II funding because they are NOT CURRENTLY SERVED by at least 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. So if only 4 out of 99 Iowa counties account for 1,892 underserved Iowans, how can the entire STATE only have 1,243? And that's not even the most concentrated area of underserved Iowans in the state.
Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable." - Mark Twain
It's clear that different data sources disagree about how many Iowans have access to what the FCC has defined as "broadband" (25 Mbps download by 3 Mbs upload). What's even clearer is that almost no one is taking reliability into account...except for the customer.
I've conducted broadband surveys in several Iowa communities over the past two years, and one common theme has emerged: reliability is a real problem. Making the problem worse is long response times to outages by the big providers. A representative of one of those providers told city officials in one of the study communities that they were proud that they had reduced their response times to less than 72 hours. Let that sink in for a moment. 72 HOURS. And you don't have to look hard to find stories from frustrated customers who say their broadband provider won't roll a truck to fix a problem unless they get enough complaints to justify the expense. Electric manager, imagine if you did that.
If you gave customers the choice between two providers; one that offers a rock-solid 25 Mbps with 99.99% up time, or another that offers a "gigabit" (which, of course, they can't deliver to the customers' devices) that goes on and off and takes 3 days to repair, which one do you think they'd pick?
Community-based providers should take heed. The "statistics" may favor your competitor but the "facts"-about reliability, customer service quality, and response times-all favor you. Make sure your customers understand those differences.
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June 16, 2021
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