Congress Tells FCC to Fix Broadband Maps Now

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, March 27, 2020

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Round-Up for the Week of March 23-27, 2020

Congress Tells FCC to Fix Broadband Maps Now

Kevin Taglang

On March 23, 2020, President Donald Trump signed into law the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act. The new law requires the Federal Communications Commission, before the end of the summer, to dramatically reform the nation's problematic broadband deployment maps. The new law resulted from strong bipartisan consensus.

The FCC began collecting subscription and connection data for broadband and telephone service using Form 477 in 2000. Since then, this data has become the primary source for many FCC actions, including reports to Congress regarding competition among certain service providers, and the availability of broadband. The FCC also has used thiis data to update its universal service policies, including by excluding certain areas from receiving support. 

The FCC collects Form 477 data for both fixed and mobile broadband. Through Form 477, historically, the FCC has required fixed broadband providers to identify the census blocks in which fixed broadband service is available. The FCC has defined ‘‘availability’’ as whether the provider does—or could within a typical service interval or without an extraordinary commitment of resources—provide service to a single end user in a given census block. As a result, if even a provider could serve a single area in a census block, the FCC has counted the entire census block as being served. According to the Census Bureau, in ‘‘a city, a census block looks like a city block bounded on all sides by streets[,] . . . but [i]n remote areas, census blocks may encompass hundreds of square miles.’’ 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. 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. 

What is the Law?

The Broadband DATA Act is actually the combination of two bipartisan bills originally introduced in the House of Representatives: the Mapping Accuracy Promotes Services Act (MAPS Act) and the House version of the Broadband DATA Act introduced by Reps. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) and Bob Latta (R-OH), the Communications and Technology Subcommittee Ranking Member. Provisions in the MAPS Act explicitly make it unlawful for a person to willfully, knowingly, or recklessly submit inaccurate broadband service data. 

The Broadband DATA Act requires the FCC to adopt new rules, by September 21, that mandates the biannual collection, verification, and dissemination of granular data relating to the availability and quality of service with respect to terrestrial fixed, fixed wireless, satellite, and mobile broadband internet access service, from which the FCC will compile broadband coverage maps.

The FCC must create, and update every six months, a common dataset of all locations in the U.S. where fixed broadband internet access service can be installed. As the FCC sets out on this task, it is to prioritize rural and insular areas. By March 2021, the Government Accountability Office will conduct a review of the sources the FCC used to create the dataset. 

The FCC will collect data from each provider of terrestrial fixed, fixed wireless, or satellite broadband internet access service on where the provider has actually built out broadband network infrastructure and can provide service to a new customer within 10 business days. The data will include upload and download speeds as well as latency information. 

For mobile broadband internet access service, the FCC is to collect information about 4G service coverage that delivers download speed of not less than 5 Mbps and an upload speed of not less than 1 Mbps. 

Consumers, as well as state, local, and Tribal governmental entities, will have the opportunity to challenge any of this data through a user-friendly process created by the FCC. The FCC must provide technical assistance including tutorials, webinars, and access to staff for this challenge process.

Also by September 21, the FCC must reform its current 477 broadband deployment service availability collection process, enabling the comparison of data and maps produced by the FCC before the passage of this new law and of coverage maps created under this law. And the FCC is to continue to collect and publicly report broadband subscription data.

All the FCC data is to be shared with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

With all this data, the FCC is to create a map depicting: 1) the extent of the availability of broadband internet access service in the U.S., without regard to whether that service is fixed broadband internet access service or mobile broadband internet access service, which shall be based on data collected from all providers; and 2) the areas of the U.S. that remain unserved by providers. The FCC is also supposed to map the availability of fixed broadband internet access service and mobile broadband internet access service.

These maps are to be used to determine where terrestrial fixed, fixed wireless, mobile, and satellite broadband internet access service is and is not available -- and to inform the awarding of new funding for the deployment of broadband internet access service (like the planned Rural Digital Opportunity Fund). The FCC must update the maps biannually and make sure the Department of Agriculture and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration can consult them when considering broadband infrastructure funding. 

To ensure the accuracy of its broadband data, the FCC will conduct regular audits of the information submitted by broadband providers and create a crowdsourcing process so that individuals and entities can submit specific information about broadband deployment and availability. Within a year, the FCC must conclude a process that tests the feasibility of partnering with Federal agencies that operate delivery fleet vehicles (think the U. S. Postal Service) to facilitate the collection and submission of information. 

The FCC will hold workshops in each of the 12 Bureau of Indian Affairs regions to provide technical assistance on the collection and submission of data. Each year, the FCC, in consultation with Indian Tribes, will review the need for additional workshops. 

Small broadband providers that serve less than 100,000 subscribers may also receive FCC assistance on geographic information system data processing to ensure that the provider is able to comply with reporting requirements. 

Each year moving forward, the FCC will report to Congress on the implementation of this law and any enforcement actions it has taken.

Broadband DATA Act and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund

After President Trump signed the new law, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said:

At this point, it is vital for Congress to provide the FCC as soon as possible with the appropriations necessary to implement the Act. Right now, the FCC does not have the funding to carry out the Act, as we have warned for some time. And given the Act’s prohibition on the Universal Service Administrative Company performing this mapping work, if Congress does not act soon, this well-intentioned legislation will have the unfortunate effect of delaying rather than expediting the development of better broadband maps.

House Commerce Committee leadership -- Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR), Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Subcommittee Ranking Member Bob Latta (R-OH)  -- said it is "long past time to fix our nation’s faulty broadband maps.  Accurately mapping unserved and underserved communities is essential to promoting the deployment of high-speed service to all Americans and ensuring our investments have maximum impact.  The Broadband DATA Act will help tremendously with those efforts."

Back in February, you may recall, the FCC adopted new rules creating the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). By the FCC's own estimation, it could cost approximately $80 billion to deploy broadband everywhere in the U.S. So spending the $20+ billion the FCC has set aside for RDOF over the next decade really needs to be done right. The Broadband DATA Act is a mandate from Congress for the FCC to do just that.

Currently, the FCC plans to begin the process of determining where to spend RDOF dollars on October 22. In light of the Broadband DATA Act mandate, the FCC should consider delaying the start of RDOF so the agency has the opportunity to develop new data rules and, most importantly, start collecting data so we know which areas are in most need of RDOF support. 

The coronavirus pandemic clearly illustrates we need affordable broadband everywhere. Let's take the time to get the data and the RDOF plan aligned to connect everyone. 

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The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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