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FCC asks public to help test broadband speeds across the US

The agency wants more people using its speed test app to help improve its flawed broadband maps.

Vectorios2016 via Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission is asking more Americans to use its speed test app to help improve the accuracy of its  broadband speeds throughout the US. The tool is being used as part of a larger effort at the agency to improve its maps to get a clearer picture of broadband in America.

The Android and iOS FCC Speed Test App is similar to other apps from companies like Ookla. The test automatically generates results once you press the button to start the test. The data that's collected is used to help the FCC improve its broadband maps. 

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The FCC uses its maps to figure out how to distribute the billions of dollars in federal funding it offers each year to subsidize the cost of building out infrastructure, but the agency has acknowledged the maps are flawed. 

"To close the gap between digital haves and have nots, we are working to build a comprehensive, user-friendly dataset on broadband availability," Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chair of the FCC, said in a statement. "Expanding the base of consumers who use the FCC Speed Test app will enable us to provide improved coverage information to the public and add to the measurement tools we're developing to show where broadband is truly available throughout the United States."

The problems with the current system stem from how the data is collected. The FCC relies on self-reported information from internet service providers, which are asked to report coverage for so-called "census block" areas. These areas often encompass miles of territory, and if ISPs report even a single home or business in a particular census block as having service, the FCC's current reporting method counts that entire census block as served. But that's not always the case. 

In a separate effort, the FCC is also asking the public to verify ISP-reported data regarding individual addresses. The agency wants people to type in their home addresses to double-check whether the information the agency has about their broadband service matches what providers like AT&T, Comcast or Verizon have reported to the agency. If the information doesn't match, the FCC is asking people to submit a form to dispute the information in the database. 

The issue around inaccurate maps has gained the attention of both Republicans and Democrats on the FCC and in Congress. Both sides agree that data for mapping needs to be more granular to get an accurate picture of where broadband exists and where it doesn't. 

Rosenworcel, who President Joe Biden appointed as acting chair, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the FCC's flawed data collection methods. In February, she announced the formation of a new task force dedicated to implementing upgrades to improve the agency's broadband maps