The federal government spends billions of dollars each year on rural broadband deployment, yet millions of Americans lack basic access to broadband services. Unfortunately, rural communities are hit the hardest and only 65 percent of rural areas (compared to 97 percent of urban areas) have access to high-speed fixed service, in what has been described as the “digital divide.” To help bridge this gap, it is crucial federal broadband programs are using accurate data and up-to-date maps to target the areas that need the funding the most.
Two federal agencies, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), have roles in collecting and coordinating broadband data. In 2009, NTIA launched a State Broadband Initiative (SBI), which brought together states and non-profit organizations to better integrate broadband and information technology at the local level. Another aspect of this program was to better collect data on availability, speed and location of broadband services. Once collected, this information was imported into a map, known as the National Broadband Map. This provided consumers, policy makers and businesses more accurate information on what broadband services are available and where. However, data was last collected and published in 2014.
In 2018, the FCC built on NTIA’s efforts and released a new Fixed Broadband Deployment map. This updated map includes data collected by carriers, known as Form 477, which is required to be filed twice a year. Although the FCC took steps to ensure data on availability, speed and location is still collected, that data doesn’t always produce the most accurate results. What users found out is when they would enter their address to search for providers the results would include providers not in their area. This was because the data collected is as specific as census blocks, which means entering addresses yields results that can span across counties rather than just specific isolated areas.
It’s going to take a collaborative effort to collect accurate and granular broadband coverage data and create an updated National Broadband Map. The FCC is currently looking at proposals that several businesses and associations have weighed in on. Recently, USTelecom launched a Broadband Mapping Initiative, beginning with a pilot program in Missouri and Virginia. The goal of this program is to help fill the gaps by creating a Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric through aggregating all locations in the state and identifying their geolocation, which will help identify areas with and without broadband access. So far, the results they are seeing are promising. Full results will be available at the end of this month and sent to the FCC.
Congress is also doing its part. I am working in a bipartisan fashion with my colleagues, Democrat Reps. Donald McEachin, Dave Loebsack as well as Republican Rep. Bob Latta, on legislation that would enforce providers to submit accurate data to the FCC, require a representative from a provider to certify that their submissions are accurate and require the FCC to verify submissions meet a standard. These basic common-sense solutions are long overdue.
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