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NTIA Seeks Access to FCC’s Form 477 Database for Better Broadband Data

WASHINGTON, November 30, 2009 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration last week asked the Federal Communications Commission to release a key database of information about broadband deployment assembled from providers of high-speed internet access.

In a public notice dated Wednesday, November 25, the FCC said it intended to release this database — the Form 477 database — to the NTIA unless it received opposition from the carriers who have provided the broadband data by December 7, 2009.

Drew Clark

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WASHINGTON, November 30, 2009 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration last week asked the Federal Communications Commission to release a key database of information about broadband deployment assembled from providers of high-speed internet access.

In a public notice dated Wednesday, November 25, the FCC said it intended to release this database — the Form 477 database — to the NTIA unless it received opposition from the carriers who have provided the broadband data by December 7, 2009.

The NTIA requested access to the database in a letter from Tony Wilhelm, deputy associate administrator of the NTIA. The letter, dated November 23, 2009 but not yet available, was written to the head of the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau.

In its letter, NTIA explained that it wanted access to the Form 477 database in order to get a better idea about which areas of the country are served – and which areas are not served.

NTIA “intends to use this data to help validate the unserved or underserved classifications of the BTOP applicants’ provided funded service areas,” the public notice quotes Wilhelm’s letter.

BroadbandCensus.com, a sister web site to the news on broadband stimulus, wireless and the national broadband plan published on BroadbandBreakfast.com, has consistently urged that disclosure of the FCC’s Form 477 database would provide policy-makers and the general public with greater knowledge of broadband availability and competition. For a commentary about the public notice on BroadbandCensus.com, click here.

The FCC traditionally uses just such a “public notice” to alert providers to the possible disclosure of information in the Form 477 database. Following a lawsuit by the Center for Public Integrity filed on September 25, 2006, the FCC issued the following public notice “to service providers who filed FCC Form 477s with the Commission and sought confidential treatment of the information submitted.”

Further information on the Center for Public Integrity’s lawsuit seeking public access to the Form 477 database is available in this January 2007 piece and in this June 2007 piece.

News of the FCC’s public notice was first reported in StimulatingBroadband.com.

From the information available in the November 25, 2009, public notice, is unclear what information, if any, that NTIA gleans from the Form 477 database will be publicly disclosed.

On the one hand, the NTIA commits, in its letter to the FCC, to “protect confidential and propriety information from public disclosure to the fullest extent authorized by applicable law.”

But on the other hand, changes are coming to the world of broadband data. The very definition of the information that the NTIA has deemed “confidential” for the public of broadband data and mapping has changed dramatically in recent months.

The Notice of Funds Availability for broadband data and mapping, issued July 1, 2009, declared that information about the geographic areas in which providers offered service would be deemed “confidential information.”

Soon after the NoFA was released, the NTIA began to change its approach to confidentiality. In remarks at a forum in Charlottesville, Va., on July 27, NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling said that now was “a new era” for broadband data, including public data about carriers that provide high-speed internet service.

He said that he hoped and expected that carriers will allow information about the areas in which they serve to be made publicly available, as they do in Canada, he said…. Strickling also said that broadband incumbents that seek to challenge broadband applicants who argue that their areas are “underserved” will have to make such information public – and in the same format as the broadband data collection efforts underway nationwide. “We need the data: I think it is a national imperative in which this data be collected,” said Strickling, responding to a question about whether carriers will in fact provide states with the information necessary to create state-level broadband maps.

In addition, Strickling said that he expected carriers to “waive” confidentiality provisions in response to public pressure for data.

These commitments were followed up by a significant course-reversal by the NTIA on August 7, 2009. The agency changed the definition of “confidential” information to allow, and possibly require, the identification of carriers providing broadband service to individual Census blocks. Previously, information about the carriers that serve a particular Census block had been considered proprietary and confidential.

The agency reiterated its position in favor of disclosing carrier identities in its August 17 report to Congress, and in a September 10 press release highlighting the initial broadband data grants. In the Report to Congress, the NTIA said that “it intends to identify all broadband providers by name on the broadband map rather than leaving such identification to the discretion of the provider. These clarifications will help enable NTIA to build a robust, accurate broadband map for the benefit of consumers and policymakers.”

In response to questions from Broadband Census News in September, NTIA spokesman Mark Tolbert underscored that the recipients of broadband mapping grants are now required to collect and to publish this carrier information at the Census block level. “Applicants have always been required to collect and provide to NTIA the names of the providers at the address/Census block/street segment level (whichever level they collect at),” Tolbert said.

“As stated in the NoFA, ‘Applicants must provide a description of how the States broadband data will be publicly accessible, clearly presented, and easily understood by the public, government and the research community. Applicants must also describe the applicants’ proposed State-level map’,” Tolbert continued.

“Accordingly, NTIA expects that all non-confidential data (and names of providers at a census block/street segment level is not confidential) will be publicly accessible.”

Tolbert said that if a broadband grant recipient refused to collect and publish this data, they risk a de-obligation of funds. He also said that the NTIA will make the carrier-level data, at the Census block level, available to the public as soon it receives the information from the mapping grant recipients.

About Broadband Census News and Broadband Census Data

BroadbandBreakfast.com is published by Broadband Census News LLC, and BroadbandCensus.com has provided news and data about broadband access and deployment since January 2008. Broadband Census Data LLC produces commercial data services for cities, states, carriers, and educational institutions. Read more about us.

BroadbandCensus.com supplements “crowdsourcing” by internet users with a variety of data-collection techniques to create public and transparent broadband maps. BroadbandCensus.com has pioneered the Broadband SPARC: for Speeds, Prices, Availability, Reliability and Competition. See its beta map of Columbia, South Carolina at BroadbandCensusMaps.com.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney at The CommLaw Group. He has closely tracked the trends in and mechanics of digital infrastructure for 20 years, and has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers navigate coverage, identify markets, broker infrastructure, and operate in the public right of way. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Broadband Data

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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Broadband Data

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 Data

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

Broadband Breakfast Sponsor

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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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