Mapping, Impact & Adoption: A Research Agenda for Effective Rural Broadband Policy

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Digital Beat

Mapping, Impact & Adoption: A Research Agenda for Effective Rural Broadband Policy

Remarks of Gigi Sohn

Before the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities

Broadband’s Role in Rural Economic Development:

Exploring the Intersection between Community and Agricultural Broadband Needs

(as prepared for delivery)

Gigi Sohn

Good afternoon! Thank you for that wonderful introduction. I’m delighted to talk to you today about how the research and extension community can help federal and state governments make better decisions about investments in rural broadband.  I want to thank my friend Sasha Meinrath for giving me the opportunity to discuss this timely topic. I know that I don’t have to tell this group how critical robust broadband Internet access is for full participation in our society, our economy, our education and health care systems and government services and how utterly lacking it is in rural America. If Americans weren’t aware of this a year ago, they sure are now.

When I worked as Counselor for former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, I saw firsthand the challenges in ensuring that billions of dollars of federal government investment resulted in robust broadband networks. Over the past decade, the FCC alone has spent well over $50 billion to build out broadband networks in rural areas. That’s probably enough money to build fiber-optic networks to every rural home and business in the country. What return has the American ratepayer gotten on her investment?  Painfully slow networks and, according to Broadband Now, 42 million Americans who still don’t have broadband available to them at any price. 

The latest FCC investment, some $9.2 billion dollars, was made as part of its Rural Digital Opportunities Fund auction, more commonly referred to as RDOF.  It didn’t take long for people to figure out that much of this money was not going to result in the promised gigabit networks or in significant deployment to unserved rural areas. As laid out in great detail by the public interest organization Free Press in a series of blog posts, a sizable portion of that money – about $2 billion, went either to broadband companies that lack the technical capability to deliver more than 100 Mbps symmetrical speeds or to companies who bid to serve cherry-picked areas like airports, highways, golf courses and high-priced housing developments where gigabit service is available nearby. This embarrassment caused 157 bipartisan and bicameral members of Congress to write a letter to the FCC asking it to more thoroughly vet the winning bidders to ensure that they have the technical, operational, financial and other wherewithal to build the promised networks, including putting their “long form” applications out for comment, which would be unprecedented. You can’t get 157 members of Congress to agree on the time of day – so that should tell you something.

How did we get to this place where government blithely gives away over $9 billion dollars without any due diligence that the promises made by network operators can be kept?  Some of it is politics, for sure. The cynical among us might say that it was more important for former FCC Chairman Pai to push billions of dollars out the door to former President Trump’s base prior to the election than to ensure that ratepayer dollars were wisely spent. But there are more fundamental reasons why, ten years after the national broadband plan was drafted, tens of millions of Americans across the country are still unconnected, either because there is no network available, they cannot afford it, or they are unwilling to use the network for a variety of reasons, including lack of digital skills and training, lack of trust, etc.

And this is where you come in. The federal government, which includes the FCC but also other broadband policymaking bodies like the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service and the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration lack the economic, technical and social science research to make smart decisions on where and how to invest to close the digital divide in rural America.  The same can be said of the states, which are increasingly major players in funding both infrastructure and digital inclusion initiatives, and, I sincerely hope, will be partners with the federal government in crafting and executing broadband policy.

In keeping with the rule of three, I’ve come up with three categories of research that will help both federal and state governments make smarter broadband investment decisions. I call them mapping, impact and adoption, or MIA. And yes, that acronym is somewhat purposeful. 


Let’s start with mapping. My premise is simple. You can’t make good policy with bad data. And the data underlying the FCC’s broadband maps are just plain bad.  Here’s the problem  - the FCC relies on data collected from broadband providers that measure whether that provider could, not does, provide service within a census block.  If the provider could provide service to just one home in a census block, all the homes in that block are considered “served.” 

Last spring, Congress passed a law requiring the FCC to collect more granular data on broadband availability, but the FCC claimed that it didn’t have the funds to build the maps. So, it proceeded with the first phase of the RDOF auction based on the bad maps, and just one day before Chairman Pai left the agency, the FCC released its annual Broadband Deployment Report, concluding that, based on that same data, broadband is being deployed to all Americans “on a reasonable and timely basis.” Needless to say, during a pandemic when it’s become abundantly clear to everyone in the US that tens of millions of Americans lack broadband, that conclusion is laughable.

The results of bad data were plain to see in the RDOF auction. Areas that were unserved, but appeared to be served on the FCC’s maps, weren’t eligible for the auction. And areas that were across the street from gigabit service provided by large cable companies appeared to be unserved. And because of bad data, the FCC was able to boast that broadband was being deployed to all Americans on a reasonable and timely basis, and that it needn’t take any regulatory action to ensure greater availability and adoption of broadband.

In the last COVID-19 relief bill, Congress gave the FCC $65 million to rewrite the maps using more granular data, and I expect that this FCC will move quickly to do so. But the agency needs, and will provide a portal for, crowd-sourced data to make the maps even more accurate. And, I’m hoping, that it will seek and include not only data on broadband availability, but also on speeds and prices. 

Frustrated with inaccurate federal maps, states are taking matters into their own hands. The broadband mapping programs in Pennsylvania and Georgia are the gold standard for the kind of data that the FCC needs to fill out its broadband maps. In 2018, Penn State conducted 11 million speed tests across Pennsylvania in determining that most of the state did not have access to broadband at the FCC’s 25/3 benchmark speed, despite the fact that the FCC’s maps showed that 100% of the state had access. The state of Maine has a coalition of organizations that are conducting similar speed tests across the state.

The Georgia broadband map is the most granular in the nation. Populated by data provided by a commercial real estate company, it precisely maps the availability of broadband services to every home and business in the State. The map was created by overlaying all the locations of homes and businesses in Georgia with broadband provider service availability for those locations within the state.   

To make sure that intelligent rural broadband investment and policy decisions are made, federal and state governments will need accurate maps for all the US states and territories. And they will need your help building them.


The second category of research I want to discuss measures impact.  In other words, what has been the impact of the over $50 billion investment made by the FCC over the past decade? What about the investments made by NTIA and RUS? What has been promised in terms of coverage and speeds, and have those promises been kept? It may be for lack of resources, or perhaps the desire not to admit failure, that the government has failed to do any lookback to see whether it has gotten a proper return on its very large investments. 

Indeed, there are plenty of anecdotes that indicate that in many cases it hasn’t. For example, just this week, Ars Technica reported that both Frontier Communications and Century Link failed to meet deployment deadlines for the 2015 Connect America Fund II auction in numerous states, 23 for CenturyLink, and 17 for Frontier. Both companies had missed interim deadlines in 2019. Yet both companies recently bid and won the right to deploy networks in unserved areas in the recent RDOF auction, with CenturyLink receiving $262.4 million and Frontier receiving $370.9 million over 10 years. 

A comprehensive study of what was promised, paid for, and delivered over the past decade of both fixed and mobile broadband investments and why, would be helpful in making the case for greater due diligence at the front end of a high-cost fund auction and greater accountability afterwards. To the extent that any broadband provider was held accountable for failing to meet deadlines or build the promised network, what was the penalty and the final outcome?  How many companies were allowed to participate in high-cost fund auctions after missing deadlines or defaulting?  What would be the best ways to ensure compliance?  Public scrutiny of applications?  Shorter build-out periods?  Barring defaulters from participating in the next auction? 

Related to ensuring that promises are kept is research into the cost and capabilities of certain technologies that are being deployed in rural areas. The three technologies that are most often discussed as substitutes for fiber to the home in rural America are fixed wireless, low earth orbit satellites of the kind being deployed by Elon Musk’s Starlink, and 5G mobile technology powered by Open Radio Access Networks, an open, interoperable and, its proponents urge, a far cheaper way of providing mobile wireless service. While all three make promises of greater connectivity in less densely populated areas, the speed capability and price points are quite opaque. A speed, latency and cost comparison among and between these technologies and fiber to the home would help policymakers determine whether “technology neutral” policy and funding decisions are sound or whether investments in scalable, future-proof networks are the better course.

The final piece of research I’d like to see in the impact category is one that examines successful models for robust broadband deployment and adoption in rural areas. Whether those networks are provided by rural co-ops, municipalities, tribal entities, public-private partnerships or the private sector alone, what were the factors that made them successful? How were they financed?  What kind of uptake do they have and at what price point? What was the involvement of community anchor institutions like schools, libraries and health care providers?


The third category of research I’d like to suggest to you is related to broadband adoption. When the press and policymakers focus on rural broadband issues, their attention is 100% on deployment. The assumption is that if they build it, rural residents will come, but the reality is much more complicated. According to the Pew Research Center, rural residents are far less likely to adopt broadband than urban residents. Research that examines the causes for this gap would be extremely valuable to policymakers.

The primary reason that people in the US don’t adopt broadband is cost. According to the Open Technology Institute, broadband costs on average nearly $70 a month. When promotional prices are excluded, the cost jumps to around $83 a month. To my knowledge, there has been little if any research on how many rural households don’t have broadband because they can’t afford it. 

Research of this kind undercuts the myth that deployment is a rural issue affecting mostly white people and affordability an urban one that mostly affects people of color. For example, rural policymakers who might be reticent to support a broadband subsidy to low-income households because they perceive it as an urban problem might reconsider if shown that this affects their constituents as well. 

The question of what is “affordable” is one that has been addressed by several researchers, including Colin Rhinesmith of Simmons University and Sharon Strover of the University of Texas at Austin. But those studies mostly involved residents of large cities. Research that focuses specifically on what price point would be considered affordable and drive adoption in rural areas would be helpful to policymakers trying to design broadband subsidies like the $50 a month Emergency Broadband Benefit that was passed in the last COVID-19 relief bill.

Of course, there are other factors that affect broadband adoption, and research that focuses solely on the challenges with regard to adoption in rural America would be helpful in crafting policies and practices around digital skills training, workforce development, privacy, trust and other factors. Finally, I’d like to see research on what is being done to develop useful and simple applications that are geared towards agriculture, education, telehealth and government services in rural areas. Many of us take for granted that we can turn on our computers, surf the web, download apps and use them without thinking. But for others, applications that take high levels of literacy to use, digital or otherwise, are a disincentive to make meaningful use of broadband. Are there rural specific applications that could drive more broadband adoption? It’s a question that others are looking at in the education realm to address low rates of literacy. It might also be useful in untangling some of the adoption problems in rural America.


The Biden Administration has made clear that getting broadband into every home in the US will be a priority. Just yesterday, former Rhode Island Governor and nominee for Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo, said at her confirmation hearing that she would make broadband access, particularly in rural areas and tribal lands “a very top priority the minute I get into the job.”  Legislative proposals to invest in rural broadband infrastructure vary anywhere from $20-$80 billion dollars, and I’m optimistic that we will see one of those proposals become law.

The US can’t repeat the mistakes of the past – investing billions of dollars in the wrong places using technologies that will become obsolete. We need to close the digital divide everywhere in American over the next 5 years. But to do that, federal and state policymakers will need accurate data on the where, the who and the how of getting robust broadband access to all. It’s a very exciting time to work on broadband policy – I hope you will join me in making it smarter and more effective. Thank you.

Gigi B. Sohn is a Distinguished Fellow, Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate. She is one of the nation’s leading public advocates for open, affordable and democratic communications networks. For nearly thirty years, she has worked across the country to defend and preserve the fundamental competition and innovation policies that have made broadband Internet access more ubiquitous, competitive, affordable, open and protective of user privacy.

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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