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7 of the best coffee grinders to maximize your morning

Does grinding your own coffee beans really make that big of a difference? You bet. Here’s a rundown on why and our picks for the best grinders on the market right now.

Disclosure

Every product here is independently selected by Mashable journalists. If you buy something featured, we may earn an affiliate commission which helps support our work.

There are few things better than the perfect cup of coffee

If you’re someone who’s ever thought about upping your coffee game—or simply trying to cut down on that daily Starbucks habit—but have no idea where to begin, buying a coffee grinder is a great first step. Grinding your own coffee may sound intimidating, but it’s actually pretty easy, and can make a huge difference in your coffee’s taste with minimal effort on your part. You just need to know where to start. 

When it comes to coffee, like many things food-related, fresher is always better. Coffee goes stale pretty quickly, so buying pre-ground beans may seem like the better option, but it really means you’re losing out on both flavor and freshness. Grinding beans on the daily will undoubtedly yield coffee that’s brighter, deeper in flavor, and just an all around better experience. And it’s not as complicated—or as time consuming—as you might imagine.

There are two main types of coffee grinders: blade grinders (pretty much what they sound like—a metal blade that spins around to grind the beans) and burr grinders (two serrated pieces of metal that rotate around each other to crush the beans, by hand or electronically). Blade grinders will get the job done, but coffee snobs will tell you that they yield uneven grinds, meaning you’ll never get the most flavor out of your beans. Burr grinders do a much better job at consistent grinding, making them the grinder of choice for most coffee drinkers. They do tend to pricier than blade grinders, but there are still plenty of very affordable options out there.

Now that you’re up on your Coffee Grinding 101, it’s time to delve into the research. We’ve chosen seven of the best, most well-reviewed coffee grinders on the market, ranging from under $50 to upwards of $250, and broken them down for you below. The bulk of our picks are burr grinders; although they’re more expensive, we do think they’re worth the upgrade and are the better bang for your buck in the long run. We did throw one blade grinder in the mix, though, as it received thousands of rave reviews and comes in at about the same price that two venti lattes will run you.

Let’s not put all this caffeine power to waste, people. Here are our picks for the seven best coffee grinders.


Reliably produces even grinds • Well-priced • Compact and easy-to-use
Customers complain that it’s tough to grind beans finely enough for espresso. It’s possible to recalibrate the burrs to fix this issue (Baratza provides instructions in the manual) • but it’s a bit of a pain
This ultra-reliable grinder is easy to use and consistently produces even grinds, making it the perfect choice for any type of coffee drinker who isn’t looking to break the bank.

1. Baratza Encore Conical Burr Coffee Grinder

This ultra-reliable grinder is easy to use and consistently produces even grinds, making it the perfect choice for any type of coffee drinker who isn’t looking to break the bank.

  • Grinder type:
    Electric, stainless steel conical burr
  • Dimensions: 6.29 x 4.72 x 13.77 inches
  • Bean hopper capacity: 8 ounces
  • Weight:
    6.8 pounds
After reading countless reviews and researching dozens of brands and models, we’ve landed on the Baratza Encore Conical Burr Coffee Grinder as our top choice for the best grinder on the market.
The Encore boasts a ton of great features that will please everyone from the coffee connoisseur to the average person stumbling through their morning in search of a caffeine pickmeup. Its conical burr grinding system has 40 individual grind settings, which means it can precisely grind your beans to any texture, from super fine all the way to coarse. (This matters because different types of coffee require a different grinds consistency. You’ll want finer grinds for espresso, for example, and coarser grinds for your press coffee.)
The Encore couldn’t be easier to use. There’s an on/off switch on the side, a front-mounted pulse button that grinds on demand, and a beans hopper up top that turns side-to-side to adjust the grinds setting. It’s simple to clean—no tools needed to remove the burrs and no special brushes required to clean them—as well as being fairly quiet to run so you won’t wake up the entire house when you’re grinding. And at  less than five inches wide, this grinder won’t take up a ton of room on your counter.
But best of all? The Encore is consistent, reliable, and effective. Customers rave about this grinder’s powerful motor, perfectly ground beans, and affordable price point, and have similarly glowing things to say about Baratza’s customer service. 
Amazon customer Jolo says:

“I received a Baratza Encore for Christmas. Wow, what a difference. Beautiful grind from the stainless grinders – consistent and can go finer than I want, much quieter and the coffee tastes great again. Oh – and it’s easier to use…1. This Baratza grinder is relatively quiet, I can use it in the mornings without waking the whole family up. 2. The grind is consistent. From coarse to very fine for an espresso machine. On setting 10 it’s just right for a press. 3. I like the stainless conical burr grinders, and the container for the grounds slides in and out easily. I’m loving this grinder!”

And Amazon customer M.C. Lee writes:

“I seldom write reviews (because I am too lazy) but in this case I felt that I must review it. First of all, the grinder itself does an excellent job in grinding coffee. But I am giving it 5 stars not for the product itself but for the excellent customer service. The grinder worked flawlessly for over a year and then it broke 2 weeks ago. The unit was 2 months out of warranty. I checked Baratza’s website and they have a repair program. The price for reasonable ($45 for repair.) I figure it was worth the repair since a new one is more expensive one year later. I shipped it to the service center with the payment enclosed and I got it back 10 days later. They fixed it by replacing the broken motor and re-calibrate the unit. Not only was the turnaround quick, but they also didn’t charge me for the repair (void check returned.)”


Straightforward • easy-to-use design • Under $100
Performs better with finer grind settings rather than coarser ones • Grinds bin is not anti-static
A basic, dependable choice for coffee drinkers looking to try their hand at grinding their own beans.
Looking to take the plunge into grinding your own beans but not sure you need all the bells and whistles that come along with a fancier grinder? (Not to mention the hefty price tag?) The Capresso 560.04 Infinity Conical Burr Grinder is the machine for you.
We love this conical grinder for its straightforward, uncomplicated design, its reliable grinding power, and its price point of under $100. The Infinity has 16 fineness settings, which is more than enough for your average coffee drinker. The grinder’s burrs are made from commercial grade stainless steel, so they’ll definitely get the job done when it comes to achieving an even grind. And although the machine isn’t great at producing coarser grinds, it still does a pretty decent job at it.
The Infinity is on the quieter side and also features a safety lock, a sizeable beans hopper and grinds bin, and a timer that can be set from five to 60 seconds. There’s a cleaning brush included (although some customers recommend purchasing a larger option, like this one, separately) as well as a measuring scoop. And it’s worth noting that the grinds bin is not anti-static, so some users complain that the grinds tend to ‘jump’ around a bit and create a small mess when the bin is opened; however, this can be avoided by waiting a few seconds after grinding for everything to settle and by tapping on the sides of the bin. 
Homer, an Amazon customer, says:

“I did my homework. I read every review. I went crazy trying to figure out which one to get. I was willing to pay more, I wanted the one that would make my coffee ambrosia. So, this is the one I bought.Quiet, works great, perfect grind … No grinder is perfect. And having read every review, I become convinced that the more one spends, the less imperfections are tolerated. This one hits the sweet spot. Not ridiculous in cost, not absurdly cheap, an ok price and a great grind.”


40 grind settings • Sturdy yet compact • Excellent customer service
Expensive • Coarser grinds come out a bit uneven
An upgrade to the popular Encore grinder, the Virtuoso is a solid choice for anyone who enjoys freshly ground coffee and is looking to step up to a higher-end machine.
If you’ve been using a more basic grinder but are looking to upgrade to a fancier machine, the sturdy, versatile Baratza 586 Virtuoso is an excellent pick.
Packed with a few extra features (and costing a few extra dollars) than the brand’s more affordable model, the Encore, the Virtuoso provides a step up in grinding power for the more serious coffee drinker. Featuring a metal base, unlike the Encore’s plastic one, the Virtuoso is a sturdy machine with a bit more heft to it. And with 40 grind settings to choose from, it’s easy to find the one that works for you and to seamlessly switch from a coarser to a finer setting depending on which type of coffee you’re making.
Like the Encore, the Virtuoso also has a front-mounted pulse button and a foolproof on/off switch, but it also features a 60-second timer so it’s easy to replicate the perfect grind once you figure out your preferred setting. And don’t forget about Baratza’s stellar repair program, a huge plus when you’re investing in an expensive grinder like this one.
Amazon customer PNWashington writes:

“This thing changed my coffee game. I had already switched over to better brewing methods (stovetop espresso, aeropress, french press), began investing in higher quality beans (including some failed attempts at roasting my own), and switched to using filtered water. I seriously questioned whether the grind would really make all that much difference, but I can say with authority that it absolutely does. I’ve found myself being disappointed with coffee from the retail coffee shops and wishing I had just made some at home. This is a worthy addition if you are serious about making good coffee at home.”

And Connor, another Amazon customer, says:

“My husband is a bit of a coffee connoisseur so he took his time finding a new grinder. Looks like we’ve found a winner. He is so impressed by the wide range of grind options and enjoyed tinkering around until he found just the right grind for his Chemex coffee maker. We have also found the espresso grind to be just right.”


Extremely affordable • Large beans hopper and grinds chamber • Reliable
Won’t grind beans as precisely as more expensive machines • Loud
Our go-to, good enough grinder for coffee drinkers looking to step up their caffeine game without forking over a ton of cash.

4. Cuisinart DBM-8 Supreme Grind Automatic Burr Mill

Our go-to, good enough grinder for coffee drinkers looking to step up their caffeine game without forking over a ton of cash.

  • Grinder type:
    Electric, stainless steel disk burr
  • Dimensions:
    10.75 x 7.13 x 6 inches
  • Bean hopper capacity:
    8 ounces
  • Weight:
    4.5 pounds
With over 7,000 Amazon reviews and a ridiculously affordable price point, the Cuisinart DBM-8 Supreme Grind Automatic Burr Mill easily snags our spot as the best bang for your buck when it comes to coffee bean grinders.
This grinder features everything your average coffee drinker would want or need when it comes to grinding your own beans. There’s nothing fancy going on here—no digital screens, not a ton of different grinds settings, and there’s a flat disk burr rather than a conical one, so you’re not going to get the level of precise grinding power that you’d come to expect from a more expensive machine. But that’s totally okay, because at under $40, there’s still a ton to love about this reliable little grinder.
The Supreme Grind features an 18-position grind selector, a sizable (and removable) beans hopper, and a grinds chamber that holds enough ground coffee for about 32 cups, give or take the cup size you prefer. There’s an electric timer that automatically shuts off when your grind cycle is complete, and the machine is easy to keep clean. And you simply cannot beat the price. For less than what you’d pay for a week of coffee at Starbucks, you can be grinding fresh beans in the comfort of your kitchen every morning.
Amazon customer Charles L. Vogel writes:

“This is one of those products that just keeps on keepin’ on. I first purchased one ten years ago, and after grinding coffee 365 days a year for that entire time, it finally gave it up. Was so pleased to find that the design hasn’t changed a bit. Good for Cuisinart to recognize when they’ve got something good and sticking to it. To all appearances it’s the same product it was 10 years ago. Looking forward to another decade of fresh-ground coffee!”

And Amazon customer Nancy says:

“I have been using this burr mill for over a year now and it works just as well today as it did the day I took it out of the box. The grind is consistent with no burned taste. The hopper holds just enough beans to get me through the week. The ground selector takes a bit of playing with to get what you are looking for and I have played with it a bit since I tend to switch back and forth from course, to medium, to fine depending on which brewer I am using that day.I am not a coffee snob by any means, just a person that prefers to blend my own beans to fit my coffee mood of the day. Be it pour over, k-cup or French press, this burr mill will work with my coffee cravings.”


60 grinds setting for maximum precision • Great for espresso • Quiet
Higher price point • Some users claim it’s inconsistent on coarser grind settings • but it doesn’t seem to be a huge issue
Packed with features and 60 grind settings, this machine is our most precise pick for the true coffee connoisseur.

5. Breville Smart Grinder Pro

  • Grinder type:
    Electric, stainless steel conical burr
  • Dimensions:
    8.5 x 6.25 x 15.25 inches
  • Bean hopper capacity:
    18 ounces
  • Weight:
    6.4 pounds
Serious coffee drinkers who love espresso, French Press, and everything in between know how important it is to own a grinder that offers a wide range of settings and turns out precise, even grinds no matter what consistency you’re after. If that sounds like you, it’s time to check out the Breville Smart Grinder Pro.
The first thing you’ll notice about this professional-grade grinder is the clear and concise LCD display screen. It’s here where you can control the grind setting, grind time, and number of shots or cups that you’d like. (There’s even a pause button if you need to stop mid-grind.) There’s a simple sliding scale across the screen with pre-programmed settings that go from coarse to fine, making your grinding experience foolproof. 
And speaking of grinding—there are 60 (that’s right, 60) settings on this machine, and they all work pretty damn well according to our research. While most conical burr grinders at this price point claim to grind coffee beans fine enough for espresso, but don’t, the Smart Grinder Pro truly delivers on this promise. It has no trouble consistently grinding beans down to an uber-fine texture perfect for your next shot of espresso.
The Smart Grinder Pro comes with two portafilter holders (a portafilter is coffee-speak for the component of the espresso maker that holds the ground up beans before and during brewing), a removable beans hopper large enough to hold a week’s worth of coffee, a grinds holder with super handy measurements etched into the side, and a cleaning bin. And although this grinder doesn’t come cheap, we actually think it’s fairly well-priced considering its professional-grade capabilities.

Doug from Amazon says:
“This coffee grinder is the best one I have ever used. Fully adjustable grind, easy to operate. Great machine for that coffee snob that likes to mess with the grind size for different coffee beans and roasts. Once you get the grind set then the time to grind can be adjusted for just the right amount of fresh ground coffee. Mmmmmm.”

And F. Patrick, another Amazon customer, says:

“This is the best grinder I have ever owned. It makes a HUGE difference in coffee smoothness and flavor due to it’s consistent grind. I kept putting it off due to its price but am so happy I finally bought it. You really do get what you pay for.”


Perfect size for travel or work • Ceramic mill won’t rust • Easy to use and clean
Small grinds bin capacity • Requires manual cranking
Although manual grinders aren’t for everyone, if you’re someone who enjoys the process, this hand grinder is a solid, well-made choice that holds up well after many uses.

6. Hario Mini Mill Slim Hand Coffee Grinder

Although manual grinders aren’t for everyone, if you’re someone who enjoys the process, this hand grinder is a solid, well-made choice that holds up well after many uses.

  • Grinder type:
    Manual, ceramic conical burr
  • Dimensions:
    7.3 x 4.5 x 3.2 inches
  • Bean hopper capacity: n/a (grinds hopper holds 0.8 ounces)
  • Weight:
    0.7 pounds
Looking to drink your coffee and strengthen your hand muscles? Then look no further than the Hario Mini Mill Slim Hand Coffee Grinder, a great manual grinder that’s also ideal for travel or work.
Although some people may find manual grinders to be a pain, many coffee enthusiasts love them for a host of good reasons. Hand grinders produce the same even, consistent grinds as electric burr grinders, but at a fraction of the cost—and the size. Manual grinders work for everything from espresso to French Press, they’re quiet, they don’t run the risk of malfunctioning nearly as much as their electric counterparts, and they’re perfect for taking on the go or to the office. And, quite frankly, there’s something to be said for taking a moment in your day to slow down and enjoy the process of grinding your own beans.
The Hario Mini Mill is slim, sleek, and simple to use and clean. It can easily be stored away in a cabinet or a drawer (the handle pops right off, making the grinder even more compact), and the ceramic mill means it won’t rust. According to reviewers, it will take you about one to two minutes to grind enough beans for a few cups of coffee, but we think that’s time well spent.
Amazon customer D. Berry says:

“This is the best manual coffee grinder that I have ever owned. As soon as I removed the Hario mill from its package, I was impressed by the design, its lightness, and robust quality of construction. The narrow waist fits perfectly in my palm, and the mouth of the coffee grinder is wide, so that spilling beans while refilling a [manual] coffee grinder is a rarity for me now. Oh, I almost forgot to mention how quickly this coffee mill grinds the beans. It takes me less than 1 1/2 minutes to grind enough for one full-size cup of Turkish coffee, and the size of the grind is very easy to adjust as well. A superior product, and I heartily recommend it.”


Super affordable • Quick and easy to use • Compact
Uneven grinds • Can’t use for espresso
A great little blade grinder for the price.
A true coffee snob may scoff at the mere inclusion of a blade grinder on this list (“Blades, not burrs? Gasp!”), but we think it deserves a spot. Not everyone cares about conical burrs, or the consistency of their grinds, or whether or not a machine can produce coffee as fine as angel dust for use in a $2,000 espresso machine. Some folks just want to take their regular ol’ everyday coffee up a notch with some fresh-ass beans, and for those fine folks, there’s the Krups F203 Electric Spice and Coffee Grinder.
This blade grinder is certainly nothing fancy, but it sure does get the job done, and for a fraction of the cost of the rest of the grinders on our list. It can grind up to three ounces of beans in about 10 seconds, enough for about 12 cups of coffee. You won’t be able to use the grinds for espresso, but for a drip coffee maker or even for something like a French Press, they’ll be perfect. (It’ll even work to give your single cup coffee maker a boost if you’re using reusable K-Cups.) Its compact design means won’t take up much space on your counter, and there’s even a lid activated safety switch to keep your fingers intact.
And if you ever need to grind spices, herbs, nuts, or grains, the F203 will get the job done. Not bad for a kitchen gadget that costs less than you spent on two glasses of wine last night.
Amazon customer A. F. H. says:

“Okay, this is a simple machine, and it does just ONE THING, but OMG it does it well. I actually have two of these grinders: one for spices, and another one for coffee beans. I’ve used them every day or multiple times a day for years, and they just keep on ticking.”

Best laptop and tablet deals this week: Save on Apple iPads, plus laptops from HP, Lenovo, Microsoft, Apple, and more

Just to let you know, if you buy something featured here, Mashable might earn an affiliate commission.
Save on laptops and tablets this week.
Save on laptops and tablets this week.

Image: Mashable Photo Composite

It’s Monday, which means it’s back to the grind for everyone. Whether you’re locked in the office or running from class to class, it’s going to be another busy week. It’ll be even longer if you don’t have a laptop or tablet to help handle your work load. Thankfully, there are plenty of deals this week courtesy of Walmart, Amazon, and beyond.

If you prefer 2-in-1 laptops, take your pick from the Microsoft Surfaces available, like the Microsoft Surface Book for $1430 or Microsoft Surface Pro 4 for $1910.

There’s the Lenovo Ideapad 320 for $289 if you’re concerned about price and need something simple and reliable. On the other end, there’s the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon for $1895.71 if you need a powerhouse that can handle it all. Then there are models in between, like the Lenovo ThinkPad 15.6-inch E580 for $545.49 or Lenovo IdeaPad 15 Y700 for $779.99 that can be tailored to whatever your needs may be.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg on sales this week. There are plenty of deals for laptops from Dell, HP, Acer, and more to choose from, plus lots of great tablets on sale too.

Here are some of the best deals of the week:

Tablets on sale

Get an iPad on sale from Amazon.

Get an iPad on sale from Amazon.

Image: Apple

Laptops $499 and below

Image: Lenovo

Laptops $500 and $999

Image: Google

Laptops for $1000 and beyond

Image: Dell

Roku’s Premiere streaming boxes are tiny, cheap, and support 4K

Disclosure

Every product here is independently selected by Mashable journalists. If you buy something featured, we may earn an affiliate commission which helps support our work.

Roku's Premiere and Premiere+ streaming players look more like streaming sticks.
Roku’s Premiere and Premiere+ streaming players look more like streaming sticks.

Image: jake krol/mashable

Roku doesn’t believe that there’s one streaming player for everyone.

Launching early next month, two new Roku streaming players focus on affordability and 4K support. The Premiere and Premiere+ will be $39.99 and $49.99 respectively. Both are cheaper than Amazon’s $69.99 4K Fire TV.

Both of these are tiny and fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. During a briefing with Roku, I first thought these were new streaming sticks, which tend to be watered-down versions of a full-on player. However, it quickly became clear that, although the form factor is small, these are full-featured streaming devices.

4K support is big for streaming players of this size. Each of them is about as tall as two pencils stacked on top of each other, looking like a thick USB drive. Even if you don’t currently have a 4K television, this is a streaming player that can grow with you. 

The Roku Premiere

The Roku Premiere

Image: jake krol/mashable

Powering the traditional Roku experience is a quad-core processor and 802.11 (b/g/n) WiFi for a fast connection. Neither the Premiere or the Premiere+ features an Ethernet port. An HDMI port that supports Dolby and DTS Digital Surround sound is on the back, along with a microUSB port for power. An HDMI cable and a power cord are in the box. 

The core difference between the Premiere and the Premiere+ is the remote. The cheaper $39.99 Premiere has the regular Roku remote that relies on an infrared sensor for control. This also means the stick needs to be visible since you need to point the remote at it. Roku partially solves this with adhesive on one side of the Premiere, allowing you to stick to the back of your TV.

The Premiere+ includes Roku's voice remote with TV volume controls.

The Premiere+ includes Roku’s voice remote with TV volume controls.

Image: jake krol/mashable

Roku’s Premiere+ uses a Voice Remote that can control fully control volume and power for the TV. It also uses a wireless connection for control. Alternatively, the Roku remote app for iOS and Android works with both.

All of the channels and services that support Roku are available on either of these new streaming players, including the Roku Channel, which aggregates free content for any viewer to watch. The size, price, and 4K support make these a versatile streaming option. Roku will kick off pre-orders today for the $39.99 Premiere, with shipments beginning in October. The $49.99 Premiere+ will be exclusive to Walmart.com and Walmart retail stores when it launches in early October as well. 

Stay tuned for our full review of the Premiere and Premiere+ closer to their official launch.

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Apple Watch Series 4 teardown reveals big changes on the inside

Apple’s iPhone XS, as good as it is, isn’t all that different from its predecessor, the iPhone X — even on the inside

But the company’s Apple Watch Series 4 is a major update compared to Series 3, and it’s all the more apparent when you tear it down to bits. 

We already knew that the Watch 4 is slimmer compared to Watch 3, with a bigger screen and new heart-rate sensor. In this detailed teardown, conducted by iFixit, we see just how different the two devices are; just look at the x-ray photo, below. 

Talk about radical changes. Apple Watch Series 4 on the left, Series 3 on the right.

Talk about radical changes. Apple Watch Series 4 on the left, Series 3 on the right.

The circular thingy in the middle is the new optical heart-rate monitor/electrical heart sensor combo. Numerous other details are different; for example, the screen of the new Watch has slightly more rounded corners, and the taptic engine is a big longer but also thinner. 

The teardown also reveals that the Apple Watch Series 4 has a bigger, 291.8mAh battery, a 4% capacity increase over Series 3, and that’s despite the Watch being thinner by 0.7mm. 

Most impressive, overall, is the sheer amount of tiny components Apple managed to elegantly squeeze into a wrist-worn device. 

Amazingly, despite the number of components involved, Apple Watch Series 4 scores pretty well on iFixit’s repairability scale: 6 out of 10. Both its screen and battery can be replaced (operative word here is “can” — don’t do it unless you know what you’re doing), and band replacements are simple and backward-compatible. 

Check out the full teardown here

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How bad maps are ruining American broadband

Like countless other American cities, Cleveland, Ohio, suffers from a lack of meaningful broadband competition. With only one or two largely apathetic ISPs to choose from, high prices, slow speeds, limited deployment, and customer service headaches are the norm. It’s particularly bad in the city’s poorer, urban areas. AT&T has avoided upgrading lower-income minority neighborhoods at the same rate as higher-income parts of the city, despite decades of subsidies and tax breaks intended to prevent that from happening, according to a report by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). Even in more affluent neighborhoods, users are lucky if they have an ISP that can deliver speeds over 50 Mbps.

The problem is much bigger than Cleveland, but the FCC isn’t ready to do much about it. US customers pay some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world, and broadband availability is sketchy at best for millions of Americans. But instead of tackling that problem head on, the FCC is increasingly looking the other way, relying on ISP data that paints an inaccurately rosy picture of Americans’ internet access. And as long as regulators are relying on a false picture of US broadband access, actually solving the problem may be impossible.

As it currently stands, ISPs are required to deliver Form 477 data to the FCC indicating broadband availability and speed twice a year. But the FCC doesn’t audit the accuracy of this data, despite the fact that ISPs are heavily incentivized to overstate speed and availability to downplay industry failures. The FCC also refuses to make the pricing data provided by ISPs available to the public.

Worse, the FCC’s methodology declares an entire ZIP code as “served” with broadband if just one home in an entire census block has it. As a result, the government routinely declares countless markets connected and competitive when reality tells a very different story.

The FCC’s $350 million broadband map, for example, relies on the agency’s Form 477 data to help educate users on broadband availability. But users who plug their address into the map will quickly find that it hallucinates not only the number of broadband options available in their area, but the speeds any local ISPs can provide. A recent FCC update fixed none of these problems.

In Cleveland, the FCC’s map insists that city residents have at least six ISPs to choose from. But if you look closer, you’ll find that Cleveland residents really only have one option (Charter’s Spectrum) if they want a good connection. The other options the FCC cites include substandard satellite broadband, which is plagued by high latency and usage limits, and AT&T DSL, which is listed twice by the FCC but is patchy in its availability.

FCC Form 477 block data for June 2016.
Image: NDIA

Given the unaudited unreliability of this data, the reality is likely even uglier. (This data doesn’t include pricing or restrictions on your line like usage caps and overage fees, which are glorified price hikes only made possible by said lack of competition.)

“The best maps we have at the federal level are awful,” notes Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), a group dedicated to helping communities improve broadband availability. Even if the data were accurate, Mitchell notes, it’s usually 18 months old by the time it’s integrated into policy conversations.

“Broadband data is not a fine wine or cheese,” Mitchell says. “There is no reason to store it in a cave to age.”

Mitchell’s organization recently took a closer look at the disparity between reality and FCC data in Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic. It’s a city of 114,000 people in southeastern Minnesota, the third-largest city in the state. Like Cleveland, Rochester residents are hungry for better, cheaper broadband.

According to the FCC’s data, Rochester is awash with broadband options. The agency insists that as many as a dozen broadband providers are available to most city residents, with a fixed wireless provider by the name of LTD Broadband purportedly providing speeds up to 244 Mbps to wide swaths of the city.

But according to the ILSR report, the reality is far different. Not only does LTD Broadband’s Form 477 data dramatically overstate service availability, but the report stated that the ISP has overstated available speeds by a factor of 24. It’s a theme shared by most other ISPs in the area and the data they share with the federal government.

At least 4,000 of the 215,000 residents living within a 30-mile radius of the Rochester city center lack access to any broadband whatsoever. Another 42,000 people lack access to any fixed-line broadband options, driving them toward satellite broadband, which is considered the black sheep of the broadband sector due to cost, high latency, and daily or monthly usage restrictions.

Wireless is often promoted as a wonderful alternative to fixed-line broadband, but that’s not always the case. Wireless is often expensive, loaded with inconsistent restrictions, and users in rural markets often find themselves booted from the network for what’s often moderate usage. A monopoly over the fiber lines feeding cell towers only complicates the problem.

In Rochester, 19,000 consumers have the choice of only one local cable broadband provider — Charter’s Spectrum — and reality looks absolutely nothing like the picture ISPs and the FCC try to paint, Mitchell’s group found.

“Even where residents have a choice in broadband, anyone looking for speeds in excess of 40 Mbps will almost certainly have to subscribe to Charter Spectrum,” the report concludes.

In policy conversations, ISP lobbyists lean heavily on the FCC’s flawed data to falsely suggest that American broadband is dirt cheap and ultra competitive, despite real-world evidence to the contrary. ISPs also use this false reality to imply meaningful consumer protections aren’t necessary because the market is healthy (as we saw during the fight over net neutrality).

Some cities like Rochester have eyed either building their own broadband networks or striking public / private partnerships to fix the problem. But incumbent ISPs not only use the false FCC data to imply such efforts aren’t necessary, but they have lobbied (and, in some cases, written) protectionist laws in more than 20 states, prohibiting that from happening.

On the wider policy level, having accurate data is incredibly important as the government determines which areas are in need of broadband subsidies. That was a major point of contention at a recent FCC oversight hearing, as states vie for $4.5 billion in rural broadband deployment funds intended to shore up connectivity gaps.

“The maps stink, and we’ve got to be more proactive in getting them fixed,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) at the hearing. “The providers created this problem by showing you a map that’s covered in red,” he said, suggesting that “we’ve got to kick somebody’s ass” to get the problem fixed.

Other government agencies agree. The General Accounting Office released a study last week stating that the FCC routinely overstates broadband availability on tribal lands, actively harming the government’s ability to get these marginalized populations connected.

“Residents of tribal lands have lower levels of broadband Internet access relative to the US as a whole, but the digital divide may be greater than currently thought,” the GAO said. “FCC data overstated tribes’ broadband availability and access to broadband service. These overstatements limit FCC and tribal users’ ability to target broadband funding to tribal lands.”

This inaccurate data “could affect FCC’s funding decisions and the ability of tribal lands to access broadband in the future,” the GAO wrote. That’s of particular concern as the Ajit Pai-led FCC contemplates reducing broadband subsidies for tribal areas as part of the agency’s slow dismantling of Lifeline, a program designed to help bridge America’s digital divide.

The GAO provided a laundry list of recommendations to fix the problem, but it seems unlikely that the FCC — given its eagerness to please incumbent providers — will rush to fix a problem that has plagued America for years.

“By painting a far rosier picture of the digital divide than is warranted, policymakers have a far less sense of urgency about fixing the problem,” notes Gigi Sohn, a lawyer under the previous FCC. “And of course, if you don’t know the breadth of a problem, policymakers can’t be very strategic or targeted in fixing it.”

Fixing the data collection methodology at the heart of the problem shouldn’t be complicated, Sohn said, but ISPs have routinely lobbied against nearly every effort to do so.

“I would require the Internet access providers to, at a minimum, do a block-by-block mapping, and preferably, every home or building, along with prices, which would then be reported on the Form 477,” Sohn said when asked how she’d go about fixing the problem.

“It’s just a lack of political will to ask the companies to do more,” Sohn said.