All Over the Broadband Map

Benton Foundation

Friday, September 13, 2019

Weekly Digest

All Over the Broadband Map

 You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of September 9-13, 2019

Kevin Taglang

What if you held a Congressional hearing and consensus broke out? As strange as that proposition may appear to be in Washington these days, there does seem to be general consensus that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) isn't doing a good enough job collecting data on where broadband internet access service is available -- and where it ain't. On September 11, the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology convened to discuss legislative solutions to our broadband data challenges. 

How Does the FCC Determine Where Broadband Service Is?

By way of background, the FCC began collecting subscription and connection data for broadband and telephone service using its Form 477 in 2000. Since then, these data have become the primary source for many FCC actions, including its publication of statutorily mandated reports to Congress regarding competition among certain service providers, and the availability of advanced communications capability.  The FCC has also used these data to update its universal service policies, sometimes excluding certain areas from receiving support. Notably, the FCC collects Form 477 data for both fixed and mobile broadband.

Through Form 477, the FCC has required fixed-broadband providers to identify the census blocks in which their service is -- or could be -- available. As a result, if a provider could serve even a single household in a census block, the FCC has counted the entire census block as being served. In a 2018 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the FCC’s fixed broadband availability methodology overestimates broadband deployment by “counting an entire census block as served if only one location has broadband.” GAO also found the FCC data overstated deployment by “allowing providers to report availability in blocks where they do not have any infrastructure connecting homes to their networks if the providers determine they could offer service to at least one household.”

For mobile broadband service, the FCC’s Form 477 requires providers to report their coverage areas by submitting maps depicting where consumers can expect to receive the minimum advertised services. In imposing this requirement, the FCC does not require providers to use a standardized method with defined technical parameters when determining their coverage areas. As a result, according to the FCC, its mobile broadband data cannot be compared across providers.

How is the FCC Trying to Improve Its Broadband Data?

In August, the FCC changed course and decided to require fixed-broadband providers to submit new maps of the areas in which their services are available. As part of this new data collection, the FCC will require providers to submit data using shapefiles—or polygons—rather than on a census block basis. This new collection is similar to the FCC’s Form 477 data in that it will allow providers to submit availability data based on where a provider has a current connection or “could provide such a connection within ten business days of a customer request.” The FCC also required the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) to create an online portal for “local, state, and tribal governmental entities and members of the public to review and dispute the broadband coverage polygons filed by fixed providers.” The order leaves the current Form 477 system in place, but requests comment on whether the FCC should sunset some or all of the Form 477 collection. The FCC also asked additional questions about whether it should require more granular data for fixed providers, how to account for satellite providers, how to improve mobile broadband coverage data, and how to better incorporate public feedback in the data collection process, among other things.

How Is Congress Proposing to Correct the Data Problems?

This week's hearing was a discussion about legislation proposed in the House to improve broadband deployment data collection. Five bills were on the agenda:

  1. On May 9, 2019, Reps. Bob Latta (R-OH) and Peter Welch (D-VT) introduced the Broadband Mapping After Public Scrutiny Act of 2019 (MAPS Act or H.R. 2643). The MAPS Act would require the FCC to establish a challenge process to be used to verify the collection and use of fixed and mobile broadband service coverage data submitted to the FCC by private entities and governmental entities to verify fixed and mobile broadband coverage. The bill has four additional co-sponsors. 
  2. Six Members united to propose the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2019 (H.R. 3162) on June 6. The bill would require the FCC to establish a rule that each broadband provider submit, biannually, information regarding the geographic availability of the broadband service it provides, as well as a challenge process in which the validity of the information in the National Broadband Map could be challenged by a provider or member of the public. The National Broadband Map would then be used by Federal agencies to determine the extent of the availability of broadband service. In addition, under this Act, the FCC would select an entity to assist with collecting the information, supporting the challenge process, creating the National Broadband Map, and tracking and validating how funds are made available and used for the development of broadband infrastructure. The legislation also specifies that it shall be unlawful for a person to willfully and knowingly submit information or data that is inaccurate with respect to the availability of broadband internet access service. The FCC would be authorized to be appropriated $55 million for 2020, as well as an additional $50 million for every year through 2026 to implement the legislation. The bill now has 34 co-sponsors.
  3. Reps. Ben Luján (D-NM), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and Mike Doyle (D-PA), the chairman of the Communications Subcommittee introduced the Map Improvement Act of 2019 (H.R. 4128) on July 30, 2019. The bill would require the FCC, in coordination with Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), to establish a standardized methodology for collecting and mapping fixed and mobile broadband internet service coverage data in the United States. The bill would also require a standardized challenge process to verify coverage data from providers and challenge any aspects of the data believed to be inaccurate. The FCC would be required to establish an Office of Broadband Data Collection and Mapping within the Commission to serve as the central point of data collection, aggregation, and validation. The NTIA would be required to establish a technical assistance program under which the Assistant Secretary would provide grants to state and local entities to assist with data collection.
  4. Recently, Reps. David Loebsack (D-IA) and Bob Latta (R-OH) introduced the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act (Broadband Data Act or H.R. 4229). The bill would require the FCC to issue new rules to require the collection and dissemination of granular broadband availability data. It would also require the FCC to establish a process to verify the accuracy of such data, including by using data submitted by other government entities or the public. In addition, it would require the FCC to use this data to create coverage maps based on a serviceable location fabric map regarding fixed broadband. The bill has four co-sponsors.
  5. Finally, the Mapping Accuracy Promotes Services Act (MAPS Act or H.R. 4227) was introduced on September 6, 2019 by Reps. Donald McEachin (D-VA) and Billy Long (R-MO). The MAPS Act specifies that it is unlawful for a person to willfully, knowingly, or recklessly submit broadband service data that is inaccurate. The bill has four co-sponsors.

News from the Hearing

The hearing included testimony from six expert witnesses:

  • James M. Assey Executive Vice President NCTA—The Internet & Television Association
  • Shirley Bloomfield Chief Executive Officer NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association
  • Dana J. Floberg Policy Manager Free Press & Free Press Action
  • Jonathan Spalter President and CEO USTelecom Association
  • Grant Spellmeyer Vice President, Federal Affairs & Public Policy U.S. Cellular
  • James W. Stegeman President/CEO CostQuest Associates

Cable and Internet trade group representative Assey asked the subcommittee to consider three concerns from the cable industry:

  • Mapping efforts should produce demonstrably better information than what is available today and should not impose unreasonable burdens on providers to achieve this goal,
  • Mapping should track not only where providers have already deployed, but where they have been awarded funds to deploy in the future, whether from federal or state programs, and 
  • Avoid getting sidetracked by attempts to layer in "extraneous" types of data that are not relevant to the consideration of whether broadband service is or is not available in a particular geographic area. ["Extraneous data" apparently means subscription, actual speeds delivered, pricing, and latency.]

There are a few key concepts that must be adopted and implemented to achieve reliable and accurate maps, NTCA's Bloomfield said:

  • Standardization Is Critical to Get an Accurate, Apples-to-Apples Depiction of Broadband Availability
  • Use Crowdsourcing in a Smart Way to “Sanity Check” Self-Reported Data
  • Pursue a Robust Challenge Process Before Using Data to Make Funding or Other Policy Decisions

Bloomfield said that latency and usage limits are important performance characteristics to track. 

Source: Free Press

Free Press' Dana Floberg testified that Form 477 data is inaccurate, but perhaps not as inaccurate as many fear. She stressed that bridging the digital divide will require far more than improving the detail of our nation’s broadband-deployment maps. The FCC, she said, must also take a serious look at how broadband affordability and racial discrimination make it harder for people to get online. Furthermore, Congress must ensure that the public is able to access the information that the agency collects.

U.S. Cellular's Spellmeyer was representing mainly wireless carriers at the hearing and noted U.S. Cellular's support for the bills before the subcommittee. He specifically spoke to provisions of the Broadband DATA Act which he said are essential to a successful legislative effort. He stressed standardizing cell edge probabilities and cell loading, so that "what appears on the map more closely aligns with what people experience when they use their devices."

USTA's Spalter outlined the work his organization has done with CostQuest on a Broadband Mapping Initiative pilot to “map the gap” in broadband availability in the United States. He also voiced support for the Broadband DATA Act and the MAPS Act. "Together, they would wisely combine multiple datasets to produce a granular-level fabric of data that can be used to pinpoint the location of the unserved," he said.

CostQuest's James Stegeman gave the subcommittee lengthly written testimony an overview of the Broadband Mapping Initiative, an assessment of current broadband coverage and how the use of a national location-specific dataset, what CostQuest refers to as the Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric, can provide specificity of who has access to broadband service and who does not. He urged the subcommittee to consider the following:

  • We need a national Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric dataset. The CostQuest pilot showed that the national Fabric can be constructed, helps reveal the unserved home and businesses in the country, and can be accomplished in a reasonable timeframe at a modest budget.
  • We need to link the fabric to the FCC's upcoming Digital Opportunity Data Collection (DODC) efforts. Without the fabric, the DODC polygons will only depict images of what is served. There is no reporting of the unserved.
  • We need to maintain the fabric as a living dataset that improves over time and recognizes the changes in locations for homes and businesses.

Next Steps

Although we see consensus that there's a problem with broadband data collection, it's only a start. We have a ways to go to a solution. Back in July, the Senate Commerce Committee passed its version of a broadband data solution, the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act. That bill now is co-sponsored by nearly half of the Senate, but it awaits a floor vote. The legislation considered this week requires a subcommittee and full committee mark-up, floor time, and consideration from the Senate. All that's a lot of hurdles as we hurtle towards a presidential election year.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

September 16-20 Events

Sept 16-17 -- Bridging Divides, Building Communities, Corporation for National & Community Service

Sept 16 -- Washington Rural Broadband Workshop in Olympia, Broadband USA

Sept 16 -- FCC Consumer Advisory Committee Meeting

Sept 17 -- Oversight of the Enforcement of the Antitrust Laws, Senate Judiciary Committee

Sept 18 -- FCC Technological Advisory Council

Sept 18 -- FirstNet Authority Board Meeting

Sept 18 -- Measuring the Economic Impact of Broadband, BroadbandUSA

Sept 19 -- Washington Rural Broadband Workshop in Davenport, BroadbandUSA

Sept 19 -- FCC Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee

Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Foundation
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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By Kevin Taglang.