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House Defers to Senate Broadband Data Bill; Final Bill Deletes Funding and National Map

WASHINGTON, October 7 – Congress last week passed legislation, the “Broadband Data Improvement Act,” that seeks better information about high-speed internet connections but cuts all authorization of funds – an amount that had totaled $40 million for each of fiscal years 2008 through 2012 in the Senate Commerce Committee version of the legislation.

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WASHINGTON, October 7 – Congress last week passed legislation, the “Broadband Data Improvement Act,” that seeks better information about high-speed internet connections through enhanced data collection by five separate government agencies.

But as passed by the Senate and the House, S. 1492 deleted all authorization of funds – an amount that had totaled $40 million for each of fiscal years 2008 through 2012 in the Senate Commerce Committee version of the legislation.

Although S. 1492 was agreed to by the House, the bill undercut many of the key features of a companion House bill, the “Broadband Census of America Act,” H.R. 3919.

H.R. 3919 passed the House in November 2007. It would have forced the disclosure of company-by-company broadband data. It also would have created a national broadband map under the aegis of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, with details on broadband coverage by every broadband provider at the nine-digit ZIP code level. Both features are absent in the final bill.

The Senate finally passed S. 1492 on Friday, September 26 – the same day that many state officials and academics gathered in Washington at the “Broadband Census for America Conference” sponsored by BroadbandCensus.com, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Texas at Austin and Virginia Tech’s eCorridors Program.

Until recently, Sen. Thomas Coburn, R-Okla., had opposed passage of S. 1492 on the grounds that the $40 million annual authorization was an unwarranted expenditure of federal monies.

The House passed a slightly-modified version of S. 1492 on Monday, September 29 – the same day that it initially rejected the $700 billion financial industry bailout package. Because of the changes, the Senate needed to clear the House-passed version. It did so last week, and the bill is currently before President Bush.

Sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the Broadband Data Improvement Act has received wide-spread support across Congress. At a September 16 hearing, Inouye said that the measure “will give us the baseline statistics we need in order to eventually achieve the successful deployment of broadband…to all Americans.”

Some House members expressed disappointment about S. 1492’s failure to require comprehensive mapping of broadband and reporting on commercial providers on the local level.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., agreed with Inouye’s statement on the positive impact better data could have. Through an aide, Dingell said he would have preferred to create a nationwide map of broadband infrastructure and “remains hopeful we can work towards that goal as the legislation is implemented.”

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, expressed similar disappointment. In a statement, Markey said he “wish[ed] the Senate bill contained the more rigorous data collection and disclosure, as well as the mapping provisions that were contained in the House-passed bill.”

During House floor consideration of the bill on Monday, Markey was optimistic that such a comprehensive mapping effort might still be possible, arguing that “the Secretary of Commerce should create a website through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) depicting broadband inventory maps of all the States as outlined in the House-passed bill.”

The Commerce Department is one of several federal agencies that will now be tasked with improving national data on broadband services and utilizing that data to improve policies to enhance and expand the technological infrastructure, including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Census Bureau (a nominally independent part of Commerce), the Government Accountability Office, and the Small Business Administration.

The Act also changes the language of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to require the FCC conduct an “annual” – in place of a “regular” – inquiry into broadband deployment and to list of all the 5-digit ZIP codes where broadband is not available in the U.S.

The reach of the Broadband Data Improvement Act could be global: the FCC is also directed to conduct studies on broadband services in 25 other nations and to report on difference and similarities between these nations and the U.S.

Likewise, the Census Bureau will have to expand its studies of America’s technology uses and include questions on computer ownership and broadband vs. dial-up adoption in its ongoing American Community Survey, according to the Act.

Progress on the Broadband Data Improvement Act came amidst heavy criticism of both the federal government’s broadband data collection methods and metrics as well as the United States’ arguably poor stature in broadband connectivity levels when compared to other nations.

The importance of improving the country’s broadband infrastructure was the subject of a recent hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, the same committee responsible for the markup of S. 1492. At the hearing, representatives from an array of consumer groups conveyed to senators the impact broadband has had on American’s lives through innovations like online education, telehealth applications, and increased employment opportunities. Broadband was even responsible for the delivery of one citizens testimony from Alaska, where citizens living on remote native American lands depend on high-speed internet for key access to virtual health care delivered from as far away as Dayton, Ohio.

Inouye concluded the hearing by stating that federal policies should better reflect the importance of broadband to the national communications system.

The following week, another set of experts gathered at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington at the Broadband Census for America Conference to discuss the importance of improving broadband data collection in order to better inform policy.

At the conference, broadband policy makers and economic experts like Professor Kenneth Flamm of the University of Texas discussed the challenge to the development of sound policy posed by the lack of quality data. “We really don’t have a lot of scientific data available on broadband right now,” Flamm said.

Former FCC Commissioner Rachelle Chong, currently a Public Utility Commission in California, presented a keynote address at conference focusing on California’s current efforts to collect granular data on broadband availability in the state. The effort seeks to improve upon the limited and highly criticized data published by the FCC.

On Capitol Hill, S. 1492 does not dictate any major reforms in the FCC methodology, a signal that Congress is largely satisfied with recent self-improvements the Commission said it would make. In June, the FCC released the details of a March order seeking collection of data about broadband availability at the census tract level. The FCC refuses to release the names of the broadband providers that offer service, citing “competitive harm” that would follow from such disclosure.

The FCC also seeks to include of speed tier data to better reflect the quality of service advertised by broadband providers.

The Broadband Data Improvement Act does attempt to improve further on some of the FCC’s metrics through other institutions. On speed and price, for example, S. 1492 calls for GAO to develop methods and metrics to measure the actual price per bit consumers receive and the actual broadband speeds they experience as well, as opposed to the advertised speeds.

While specific funding for these provisions awaits determination by the Appropriations Committee, the act does direct Commerce to establish a grants program that will match funds by state, municipal, or non-profit organizations intended for “initiatives to identify and track the availability and adoption of broadband services within each State.”

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) cited this final provision in particular on Wednesday when Ray Baum of the Oregon Public Utilities Commission, and chairman of the NARUC Telecommunications Committee, applauded Congress for acknowledging “the important role States play.” He added: “the information gained as a result of this bill will speed broadband-collection programs and help bring the power of the Internet to as many citizens as possible.”

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New Broadband Mapping Fabric Will Help Unify Geocoding Across the Broadband Industry, Experts Say

Tim White

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Photo of Lynn Follansbee from October 2019 by Drew Clark

March 11, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission’s new “fabric” for mapping broadband service across America will not only help collect more accurate data, but also unify geocoding across the broadband industry, industry experts said during a Federal Communications Bar Association webinar Thursday.

Broadband service providers are not geocoding experts, said Lynn Follansbee of US Telecom, and they don’t know where all the people are.

The new fabric dataset is going to be very useful to get a granular look at what is and what is not served and to harmonize geocoding, she said.

AT&T’s Mary Henze agreed. “We’re a broadband provider, we’re not a GIS company,” she said. Unified geocode across the whole field will help a lot to find missing spots in our service area, she said.

The new Digital Opportunity Data Collection fabric is a major shift from the current Form 477 data that the FCC collects, which has been notoriously inaccurate for years. The effort to improve broadband mapping has been ongoing for years, and in 2019 US Telecom in partnership with CostQuest and other industry partners created the fabric pilot program.

That has been instrumental in lead to the new FCC system, panelists said. It is called a “fabric” dataset because it is made up of other datasets that interlace like fabric, Follansbee explained.

The fabric brings new challenges, especially for mobile providers, said Chris Wieczorek of T-Mobile. With a whole new set of reporting criteria to fill out the fabric, it will lead to confusion for consumers, and lots of work for the new task force, he said.

Henze said that without the fabric, closing the digital divide between those with broadband internet and those without has been impossible.

Digital Opportunity Data Collection expected to help better map rural areas

The new mapping can help in rural areas where the current geolocation for a resident may be a mailbox that is several hundred feet or farther away from the actual house that needs service, Follansbee said.

Rural areas aren’t the only places that will benefit, though. It can also help in dense urban areas where vertical location in a residential building is important to getting a good connection, said Wieczorek.

The fabric will also help from a financial perspective, because of the large amount of funding going around, said Charter Communications’ Christine Sanquist. The improved mapping can help identify where best to spend that funding for federal agencies, providers, and local governments, she said.

There is now more than $10 billion in new federal funding for broadband-related projects, with the recent $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act in December 2020 and the new $7.6 Emergency Connectivity Fund part of the American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed into law Thursday.

The new FCC task force for implementing the new mapping system was created in February 2021, and is being led by , led by Jean Kiddoo at the FCC. No specific dates have been set yet for getting the system operational.

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GOP Grills FCC on Improving Broadband Mapping Now, as Agency Spells Out New Rules

Tim White

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Photo of former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai speaking at the March 2019 launch of US Telecom’s mapping initiative by Drew Clark

March 11, 2021 – Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has changed her stance on the timeline for updating the FCC’s broadband mapping data, and several House and Senate Republicans are wondering why.

“On March 10, 2020, you testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government that the FCC could ‘radically improve’ its broadband maps ‘within three-to-six months,’” read the letter, sent Monday to Rosenworcel from the GOP delegation.

“You repeated that statement the next day, testifying before the House Appropriations Committee’s FSGG Subcommittee that the agency could fix its maps in ‘just a few months.’”

“You can imagine our surprise and disappointment when the FCC recently suggested the new maps would not be ready until 2022,” the letter read, referring to the FCC’s open meeting on February 17, 2021.

“The United States faces a persistent digital divide. The pandemic has made connectivity more important than ever, yet millions of Americans continue to live without high-speed broadband. Any delay in creating new maps would delay funding opportunities for unserved households,” the letter read.

The letter requests Rosenworcel’s response by March 22, 2021, including why she changed the timeline, details on the timeline for developing new maps, how the FCC plans to spend the $98 million funding provided for this updated mapping as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act that passed in December 2020, among other stipulations.

Digital Opportunity Data Collection order spells out rules for mapping

On January 19, 2021, as the final order before FCC Chairman Ajit Pai left his position, the FCC announced new rules for mobile and fixed broadband providers to submit data.

The agency began collecting data from service providers in 1996 with the Telecommunications Act, and at that time considered broadband connection speed to be at least 200 kilobits per second (Kbps).

While internet speeds have greatly improved since then, the January 19 order still uses the 200 Kbps speed as at least one benchmark measurement 25 years later.

The fact that many Americans still lack access to modern, high-speed broadband has become increasingly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many children lack a consistent connection to the internet for remote learning.

Improving broadband mapping has been a major obstacle for the FCC for several years. Since the Telecommunications Act became law and the commission began gathering data on their Form 477, further legislation has been passed to improve that data, including the National Broadband Plan and National Broadband Map in 2010 and 2011, but many say that the maps still need considerable work.

In August 2019 the FCC launched this new mapping initiative, dubbed “Digital Opportunity Data Collection.” It shifts how the agency gather data from service providers using Form 477. Now, they will be required to provide more granular information.

Then, in March 2020 Congress passed the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act into law. It further improves the way the FCC much collects broadband mapping data. It wasn’t until the consolidated appropriations bill in December that Congress appropriated funds for the mapping effort.

New order returns to August 2019 principles

Under the new order, fixed broadband providers must submit data for services offered, specifying if they are for residents and/or businesses.

The order states: “This represents a change from the Commission’s proposal in the Second Order and Third Further Notice to collect data separately on residential and on business-and-residential offerings. We find that the approach we adopt will provide us with a more complete picture of the state of broadband deployment.”

Data for non-mass market services do not need to be filed, because the FCC says it does not fall within the scope of the Broadband DATA Act. Data services that will not need to be collected include those purchased by hospitals, schools, libraries, government entities, and other enterprise customers.

The order requires providers to report connection speeds for broadband internet access. The FCC considers a download speed faster than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and an upload speed faster than 3 Mbps as “advanced telecommunications technology.” That also matches the speed threshold on Form 477, at least since 2015.

Companies must report the maximum advertised speeds in the geographic area if they’re higher than 25/3 Mbps. Although the median fixed broadband speed is much higher than that across America, as reported by Ookla for the fourth quarter of 2020, millions of Americans still lack quality access to the internet.

When providers report their speeds to the FCC under the new order, they must specify in two tiers the connection speed if it falls below the 25/3 Mbps threshold. The first tier is for speeds between 200 kbps and 10/1 Mbps, and the second tier falls between 10/1 Mbps and 25/3 Mbps.

With the new order, fixed wireless providers that submit propagation maps are now required to also submit geographic coordinates—latitude and longitude—for their base stations that provide broadband to their consumers.

Previously, providers were required to submit data only on the spectrum used, height of the base station and type of radio technology. The order details that also verifying the geographic coordinates of base stations will allow for more accurate mapping. Due to the sensitive nature that geographic coordinates may have “for business or national security reasons,” the FCC will consider this new data presumptively confidential.

Latency and signal strength information now required

The new order requires fixed broadband access providers to submit information on latency in their semiannual Digital Opportunity Data Collection filing. The information must detail whether the network round-trip latency for the maximum speed offered in a geographic area is at or below 100 miliseconds.

The agency used the 100 milisecond threshold because it aligns with the requirement for the Connect America Fund Phase II program, which subsidizes companies that provide broadband access in unavailable areas.

Mobile broadband providers are now required to submit signal-strength “heat maps” showing reference signal received power and received signal strength indicator. Both of these metrics are ways of measuring 4G LTE and 5G mobile signal strength.

Covering only outdoor strength, the maps must include data for both pedestrians and drivers. Mobile providers must also submit 3G maps for areas without access to 4G or 5G connections. Due to various factors that affect signal strength, the FCC has not set a floor for minimum signal strength.

Additionally, all mobile and fixed broadband providers must certify each submission by a qualified engineer for accuracy, in addition to the corporate officer certification. The engineer must be employed by the service provider and is directly responsible for or has knowledge of the submitted maps.

FCC verification processes, and the deployment of a broadband fabric

The order permits the FCC’s Office of Economics and Analytics and Wireless Telecommunications Bureau to request additional information from mobile service providers to verify all necessary information that details either infrastructure information or on-the-ground test data for the area where coverage is provided. The companies must do so within 60 days of the request.

The order also directs OEA to verify mobile on-the-ground data submitted by state, local, and Tribal government entities that are responsible for mapping broadband service coverage. It also permits OEA to similarly verify data from third parties if that data is in the public interest for developing the coverage maps or to verify other data as submitted by providers.

The order also adopted a previous suggestion to implement systems for consumers, governmental or other entities to challenge coverage maps for both fixed broadband and mobile connections, disputing the data submitted by providers.

US Telecom and WISPA, trade association representing telecom and wireless providers in the United States, has been working with CostQuest Associates on a “fabric” mapping system for years. The CostQuest system touts considerable improvement over the FCC’s current broadband mapping. The Fabric is based on granular address-level data.

In this new order, the FCC took the first steps to implementing such a system by adopting the definition of a “location” as a residential or business location at which fixed broadband access service is or can be installed, using geographic coordinates.

The commission declined to use street address data until at least they are able “to determine the types of data and functionality that will be available through the procurement process.”

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Broadband Breakfast Interview with BroadbandNow about Gigabit Coverage and Unreliable FCC Data

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December 27, 2020 – Broadband Now’s new report on gigabit internet coverage in the United States picks upon aspects of the Federal Communications Commission’s unreliable broadband data.

FCC data shows that in 2016, only 4 percent of American had access to a gigabit connection. Fast forward to 2020, and – according to government statistics – 84 percent of Americans reportedly have that same luxury.

Except that it isn’t so.

In this interview with Broadband Now Editor-in-Chief Tyler Cooper, he and Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark delve into the mechanics of understanding the availability of gigabit broadband networks.

As Broadband Now notes in its report, progress on gigabit deployment in the U.S. has been greatly exaggerated. This is true for the state of the internet in general, as Broadband Now previously illustrated. However, the gigabit landscape is a subsection worth examining more closely, as it is the connectivity threshold that will be required to solve the speed and functionality divides of the near future.

This 18-minute question-and-answer delves into the details: Why gigabit connectivity is important, why the FCC is mismeasuring it, and how Broadband Now has filled out our understanding of this benchmark level of broadband connectivity.

The full report is titled, “Massive Gigabit “Coverage” Increase Highlights How Unreliable Government Broadband Data Can Be.”

Broadband Now Editor-in-Chief Tyler Cooper

This Broadband Breakfast interview is sponsored by:

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