WASHINGTON, August 7, 2018 – Many in the broadband industry commenting on broadband availability data exposed the weaknesses of current Federal Communications Commission data – and not only in the data itself but in the process by which it is collected.
The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Industry Association conducted a request for comments on actions that could be taken to improve the quality and accuracy of broadband availability data, particularly in rural areas.
Although the FCC regularly conduct requests for comments on broadband-related matters, the NTIA weighs in more sparingly. The agency’s May 30 Request for Comments followed a directive of Congress in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018.
In it, the NTIA said that it sought “input from a broad range of interested stakeholders—including private industry; academia; federal, state, and local government; not-for-profits; and other stakeholders with an interest in broadband availability—on ways to improve the nation’s ability to analyze broadband availability, with the intention of identifying gaps in broadband availability that can be used to improve policymaking and inform public investments.”
Form 477 a chief item of criticism; diverse suggestions on tackling it
The FCC has previously faced criticism for utilizing inaccurate data from “Form 477.” Collected for nearly two decades, the Form 477 was first collected at the census tract level.
Following the introduction of the NTIA’s State Broadband Initiative program of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, NTIA and FCC collaborating on collecting broadband data at the census block level, a much finer level of geography.
Several State Broadband Initiative entities collected data at the sub-census block level, too.
In its request for comment, the NTIA said it wanted to focus particularly on whether and how the data could be improved.
It said: “This data also demonstrates that there continued to be a significant disparity across America, with more than 30 percent of rural Americans and approximately 35 percent of those living on Tribal lands lacking broadband availability, compared to 2 percent of Americans living in urban areas.”
Diverse set of responses to NTIA’s request, with US Telecom urging a rural focus
A diverse list of companies, associations, and government bodies issued responses to NTIA’s request, which was due on July 16.
US Telecom argued that NTIA’s efforts to collect sub-census block data may continue to be ineffective due to lack of understanding over where unserved locations actually are.
According to US Telecom, the root of the problem is not “an inaccurate view of where broadband exists” but rather that “unserved locations are not mapped at all.” Because they are unmapped, the unserved areas remain excluded from policies to deploy broadband access.
“It is therefore our recommendation that NTIA concentrate its limited resources on augmenting the National Broadband Map with a more fulsome set of rural geocoded locations that may exist in the hands of other government entities,” US Telecom said.
Utah’s broadband office says that coverage by census block coverage overcounts broadband
The Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development commented that in the FCC’s current model, in “any census block that is partially covered,” all residents – including those unserved – in the census block could be made ineligible for all federal broadband programs. The partially covered census block could be ineligible even if the majority of residents are unserved.
To remedy this situation, the Utah recommended that the “NTIA and the FCC should work with providers and state broadband mapping programs to coordinating data and mapping efforts in order to collect actual provider footprints.”
WISPA opposes FCC efforts to collect granular broadband data
The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association expressed concern that new efforts by the FCC to collect more granular data could press heavy demands on small service providers, who may have difficulty collecting such specific data.
“Data-collection efforts that seek broadband deployment at the sub-census block level will create new burdens on small broadband providers that will be ill-equipped to provide information at a more granular level,” WISPA said.
WISPA also noted that obtaining granular data can be costly and time-consuming for small business who may have to purchase new software or upgrade existing technology.
Microsoft recommended “visualization and analytic tools” to collect, analyze, compare, and display information drawn from the data. By providing visualization tools, the data FCC collects will reach a greater audience and “help users better understand broadband availability” to decrease data input errors.
Microsoft hones in on a crucial distinctions: Actual service versus potential service
Microsoft also recommended that the FCC change the language specified in the data collection form to ensure that providers are reporting the areas that actually provide service to, not areas where they “could” provide service.
“We are aware of a rural county in which the FCC’s data reports six fixed broadband providers and 100 percent of the 2000-plus census blocks as having broadband access meeting the FCC’s 25/3 Mbps definition. Interestingly, about two-thirds of the census blocks in that county have a population of zero,” Microsoft said.
Two broadband providers reported they could provide broadband access, despite that they actually were not serving the residents, as “customer service representatives for these providers confirmed that they do not provide residential services in these communities.”
(Screengrab of NTIA Adminstrator David Redl speaking at the Phoenix Center in December 2017.)
New Broadband Mapping Fabric Will Help Unify Geocoding Across the Broadband Industry, Experts Say
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.
GOP Grills FCC on Improving Broadband Mapping Now, as Agency Spells Out New Rules
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.”
Broadband Breakfast Interview with BroadbandNow about Gigabit Coverage and Unreliable FCC Data
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.”
This Broadband Breakfast interview is sponsored by:
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