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Drew Clark: Broadband Maps Are a Mess, So Now Let’s Focus on Actually Improving Them

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The Founder of Broadband Census and Breakfast Breakfast, and the former executive director of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois – one of the State Broadband Initiatives that actually created the National Broadband Map – comments on a growing controversy.

First, the good news: Everyone now at least says that they want better broadband maps.

Broadband mapping has been in for a lot of criticism recently. On a recent episode of the Netflix show “Patriot Act,” titled “Why Your Internet Sucks,” comedian and commentator Hasan Minhaj took on the Federal Communications Commission’s mess on mapping. The heart of the show featured a medley of bipartisan congressional disgust:

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas: “The accuracy or the value of the map is nearly nil in my view.”

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont: “These maps are bogus. These are phony maps.”

Sen. John Tester, D-Montana: “I got to hear a lot of conversation about the maps. The maps stink, basically. We need to kick somebody’s ass, truthfully.”

Ten years after the federal government began in earnest with a major effort to collect and publish broadband data, everyone agrees that something has gone badly wrong.

But to get at what the problem is, and how broadband mapping needs to be fixed, we need to look at different reasons and motivations for collecting and publishing broadband data. Part of the problem is that there are at least four different perspectives on collecting broadband data and maps. Each perspective calls for progressively more data to be made available:

  • Some providers (such as cable companies) want to offer broadband services but generally aren’t interested in obtaining Universal Service Fund subsidies.
  • Rural telecommunications and wireless providers recognize the importance of the government mapping out areas that are served and unserved.
  • New entrants want to bring high-capacity fiber deployments to areas that currently have lower-capacity cable or DSL or wireless service, as do economic development advocates seeking to bring better broadband to their communities.
  • Academics, consumers and government oversight bodies could seek to hold broadband providers accountable for their promised levels of service.

Because each group approaches broadband mapping with a slightly different agenda, each pushes Congress and the FCC to recognize only its needs in broadband mapping. Understanding the history – and different perspectives on why broadband mapping is important – helps make sense of current policy and other initiatives, including new efforts of the U.S. Commerce Department and the industry group US Telecom.

With Broadband Mapping, Past is Prologue

In the beginning, with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress mandated that the FCC collect broadband information on a semiannual basis. The FCC, which at the time defined broadband as 200 Kbps download or upload, required providers to indicate on Form 477 the ZIP codes where they offered service. Although a limited summary of this data was publicly released, the FCC did not release information about which particular carriers operated in which particular ZIP codes. In a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking release of Form 477, the FCC and the incumbents actually opposed disclosure of this data on the grounds that doing so would lead to more broadband competition and hence harm existing providers.

With the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act under President Obama in February 2009, the government took a more active role, seeking better-quality and transparent data about U.S. broadband infrastructure. This measure launched the National Broadband Plan, released in March 2010, and the National Broadband Map, released in February 2011. Partly in response to the release of the plan, in 2010 the FCC increased the speed at which it defined broadband, to 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.

A key public policy problem leading to both these initiatives was that citizen-consumers and policymakers lacked basic information about broadband. Although the United States spends more than $8 billion per year on statistics, much of that goes to fund the Census Bureau and data collection about agricultural and labor markets, such as the monthly unemployment report. Very little of this statistical spending goes to compiling information about broadband, the infrastructure of the knowledge-based economy.

Worse, the data that the FCC has collected has been misleading, particularly when a unit of geography such as a census tract or a census block was considered “covered” when only one person in that area could obtain broadband. Although the units of geography have gotten smaller – we’ve moved from 66,438 census tracts to 11,155,486 census blocks – the problem of overcounting still exists today.

An equally important corrective to the continuing problems of carrier-provided broadband data is collecting crowdsourced data. This allows individual consumers to indicate – within some kind of platform or framework – what kind of broadband coverage they have, and to conduct speed tests of their actual internet performance. The nonprofit Measurement Lab, launched by the New America Foundation in 2008 and continuing as a freestanding entity today, is one important effort collecting consumer-generated speed tests. BroadbandCensus.com, an effort I started in 2008 to pioneer the use of crowdsourcing speed tests and other data collection, also built a 2009 prototype for the National Broadband Map that identified each carrier offering service within each census block of a U.S. city.

Publicly disclosing the census blocks in which each carrier operates became the hallmark of the National Broadband Map, created by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration in partnership with the FCC and 56 state and territorial entities through the State Broadband Initiative.

From 2010 to 2015, SBI-funded state initiatives played a crucial role in collecting broadband data. Some were housed at state public utilities commissions, others were within universities, and still others were nonprofit entities chartered with collecting data, standardizing it and providing it to NTIA for the creation of the National Broadband Map.

For all its faults, the National Broadband Map allowed everyday consumers and internet users to distinguish fiber, cable, DSL and wireless service. In disclosing broadband carriers’ footprints, the map created a framework for public verification and crowdsourcing. But because federal funding for the SBI program ended, the map was not updated after 2015. The data quickly became stale. Although the FCC has continued to collect Form 477 data, it didn’t do the verification done by the state initiatives.

The Broadband SPARC

As Congress and the FCC look anew at solutions to remedy the problem of broadband mapping, they should step back and consider what I have long called the Broadband SPARC. This rubric stands for Speeds (advertised and actual), Prices, Availability (geographic availability of service), Reliability (or consumer satisfaction), and Competition (being able to identify which and how many carriers offer service within a particular area).

I view all these elements as necessary for understanding and ranking the economic vitality of regions, counties and census subunits. But some versions of broadband mapping include only a subset of these data elements, such as advertised speeds and availability. Others want to add Yelp-style customer rankings as a metric for reliability of service. Still others view the adoption of broadband (making the rubric SPAARC) as vital to assess regional connectedness. The thinking is that if broadband service is available but no one takes it, has a region experienced a broadband benefit?

Let’s return to the perspectives of the different groups mentioned above.

The cable industry wants to sell broadband, and it provides (advertised) speed and price data to a variety of aggregator websites that help generate leads for service. But this segment of the industry has been reluctant to support improvements for the most granular-level broadband mapping because it infrequently offers service to low-density rural areas.

By contrast, rural telecommunications and wireless providers have begun to tout the need to create what they call a geospatial “broadband fabric” for understanding the ways to get broadband to even the remotest rural areas. Changes in the USF over the past decade have led the FCC to a more data-centric approach for subsidizing rural broadband. These groups have been driving a pilot project led by US Telecom in Virginia and Missouri to “get the right data out, so that we know where broadband is, and more importantly, where it isn’t,” said a spokesman for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. Using satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to deduce which structures are homes or businesses – and which structures are chicken coops – the project aims to get more granular than a census block, and even more granular than “address-level” mapping. Only by probing this level of availability can the FCC, these groups believe, target rural broadband subsidies in the right way.

But these two different camps don’t exhaust the list of uses to which broadband mapping can and should be put. For example, both approaches are critical of “overbuilders” and generally oppose any efforts by federal or local governments to support competitive entrance into the broadband marketplace. That’s why community fiber-building companies or municipalities see broadband mapping from an additional perspective. They also insist on collecting data about competition (the number and identity of providers within a given area) as well as (actual) speeds. This data collection allows a city or region to get a verified sense of their actual broadband performance.

Click Here for Sidebar: “Getting Granular: From ZIP Codes to ‘Broadband Fabrics

Such neighborhood networks, whether financed and built by private companies or publicly funded, also benefit from knowing the existence and location of interconnection points and price information. This information is a necessary input into engineering-level field studies required to build new fiber networks that compete with barely broadband services. These kinds of engineering solutions were discussed in the “Mapping Matters” session at the April Broadband Communities Summit.

In 2015, the FCC updated its broadband definition from 4 Mbps / 1 Mbps to 25 Mbps download / 3 Mbps upload, but this definition is very much due for an upgrade. I agree with those who suggest – perhaps with some cheek – that the FCC should define broadband as 1 gigabit down / 1 gigabit up. That way, a broadband map truly becomes a tool for how and where to build fiber networks.

Yet there are still more sets of information, and they involve performance-focused metrics, including actual speeds, reliability and adoption. Interestingly, both a broadband data depository and a broadband performance dashboard originally were proposed by the FCC’s National Broadband Plan. The FCC depository “would give researchers and the public better access to the FCC’s data. This will help the FCC serve its essential role as a source of independent data on broadband deployment, adoption and usage in America,” reads the National Broadband Plan. The dashboard was designed to go even further, using the transparency on a government website to track progress and accountability, and going far beyond mere availability or adoption.

The Future of Broadband Mapping

US Telecom’s pilot mapping project offers much promise, particularly if provider data about availability and competition is made available to the public and incorporated into a platform for crowdsourcing. During a June 20 webinar showcasing its progress, US Telecom demonstrated how it is using tax assessor information, building polygon datasets and parcel boundaries to create its geospatial fabric. This is more efficient than a shapefile-based approach, said Jim Stegeman, CEO at CostQuest Associates, the industry group’s contractor for the pilot.

“There’s nothing bad about shapefiles,” Stegeman said, “but you need an underlying fabric to determine what the shapefile means.” He added that a nationwide broadband mapping tool could be delivered as soon as 2020 if the government or industry decided to go forward with the US Telecom pilot.

But remember that policymakers cannot neglect the vital role of actual speed, price and adoption data. Private-sector groups such as BroadbandNow, Robert Ballance’s Internet as Infrastructure tool, and Measurement Lab’s open-source speed test data all will play a vital role in creating something like the “depository” and “dashboard” contemplated by the National Broadband Plan.

Regional economic development also is getting a boost from NTIA’s recently revived interest in working with the State Broadband Initiative. With the absence of federal funding, about half the state offices closed. NTIA has worked with the remaining offices and earlier this year announced its own pilot program with some of the active state programs in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia. These state broadband offices play a vital mapping role in helping communities understand how to facilitate more competitive broadband entrants. And with states including New York, Washington, Oregon and North Carolina putting financial resources behind actual broadband deployment, state broadband offices could be an even more significant force in advocating for more and better broadband data.

On Capitol Hill and at the FCC, much of the recent legislative focus on broadband mapping has been driven by concerns from constituents in rural areas, where census blocks can be hundreds of square miles. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., has introduced the Broadband (Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability) DATA Act, or S. 1822, with bipartisan support. In the same vein is Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s, R-W.V., Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2019, or S. 1522, introduced in the House as H.R. 3162. (Congress previously passed a Broadband Data Improvement Act in 2008, which later was incorporated into Recovery Act legislation that created the National Broadband Map.) Also relevant to this discussion is Wicker’s Broadband Interagency Coordination Act, S. 1294. That measure is designed to get the FCC and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service to work together in coordinating the distribution of funds for broadband deployment.

All these measures would direct federal funds to build out broadband infrastructure and require broadband providers to report more accurate data about availability and advertised speeds. But insofar as they appear to favor the “polygon shapefile” approach to submitting broadband information, they are less granular than the apparent aims of the US Telecom pilot project.

Given the abundance of criticism of the FCC’s broadband mapping efforts, it is no surprise that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has announced plans to circulate a broadband mapping order for a vote at the agency’s August meeting. Pai says his proposal will require reporting at the sub–census block level, and also “incorporate public feedback into our mapping efforts.” He previously said that he believes in continuous public feedback as a means of improving FCC broadband maps.

For his part, Senate Commerce Chairman Wicker said he believes the commission “should not seek to move forward on broadband funding decisions until it gets the maps right.” The agency’s current maps “have contributed to the persistent broadband gap,” and the FCC needs a “completely new approach to developing accurate and reliable maps,” he said.

Broadband mapping has inherent weaknesses when conducted in a survey-like manner. Instead, the ideal would be a BroadbandCensus-like approach, in which every person and every home is counted and measured. Because the definition of broadband changes, it is necessary to have a continually updated database of the Broadband SPARC – speeds, prices, availability (and adoption), reliability and competition. As it moves toward this approach, the FCC should collect and publish Broadband SPARC data so it can be used by all different stakeholders with an interest in broadband.

Drew Clark, the Editor of Publisher of this publication, is also  is a telecommunications attorney. The president of the Rural Telecommunications Congress, Clark also served as executive director of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois from 2010 to 2013. This article originally appeared in Broadband Communities Magazine, and is reposted with permission.

BroadbandBreakfast.com accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@broadbandcensus.com. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of BroadbandBreakfast.com and Breakfast Media LLC

(Photo of Drew Clark by Lindsay Goeckeritz.)

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

TPRC Conference to Discuss Definition of Section 230, Broadband, Spectrum and China

Broadband Breakfast briefly breaks down the topics to be discussed at the TPRC conference.

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Photo collage of experts from TPRC

WASHINGTON, September 17, 2021 – The TPRC research conference on communication, information, and internet policy is right around the corner and it is set to address some of the most pressing issues facing Big Tech, the telecom industry, and society at large. We cover some topics you can expect to see covered during the conference on September 22 to 24.

If the recent election cycle and the Covid-19 pandemic have taught us anything, it is that the threat of misinformation and disinformation pose a greater threat than most people could have imagined. Many social media platforms have attempted to provide their own unique content moderation solutions to combat such efforts, but thus far, none of these attempts have satisfied consumers or legislators.

While the left criticizes these companies for not going far enough to curtail harmful speech, the right argues the opposite— that social media has gone too far and censored conservative voices.

All this dissent has landed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996—once a staple in the digital landscape—in the crosshairs of both Democrats and Republicans, as companies still scramble to strike a compromise to placate both sides of the aisle.

Definition of broadband

The future of broadband classifications is another topic that will also be touched on during the conference. This topic quickly became relevant at the outset of the pandemic, as people around the country began to attend school and work virtually.

It became immediately clear that for many Americans, our infrastructure was simply insufficient to handle such stresses. Suddenly, legislators were rushing to reclassify broadband. Efforts in Washington, championed primarily by Democrats, called for broadband standards to be raised.

The Federal Communications Commission’s standing definition of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload appeared to become unpopular overnight, as calls for symmetrical service, like 100 x 100 Mbps speeds, and even gigabit speeds became a part of the conversation.

Many experts were quick to strike back, particularly those operating in the wireless community, arguing that the average consumer does not need 100 Mbps symmetrical speeds, let alone one gigabit, and such efforts only amounted to fearmongering that would hurt the deployment of broadband infrastructure to unserved communities.

These experts contend that shifting the standards would diminish the utility and viability of any technology other than fiber, as well as delaying when unserved communities (as they are currently defined) can expect to be served. Broader topics surrounding rural broadband and tech-equity will also be prominently featured—addressing many of the questions raised by Covid-19 across the last year and a half.

Future of spectrum

Finally, the quest for spectrum will be discussed at the conference.

As ubiquitous 5G technology continues to be promised by many companies in the near future, the hunt is on to secure more bandwidth to allow their devices and services to function. Of course, spectrum is a finite resource, so finding room is not always easy.

Indeed, spectrum sharing efforts have been underway for years, where incumbent users either incentivized or are compelled to make room for others in their band—just like we saw the military in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service band, and more recently between the Department of Defense and Ligado in the L band.

Even though these efforts are ongoing, there is still disagreement in the community about how, if at all, sharing spectrum will impact users in the band. While some argue that spectrum can be shared with little, if any, interference to incumbent services, others firmly reject this stance, maintaining that sharing bandwidth would be catastrophic to the services they provide.

On China

China is also going to be a significant topic at the conference. Due to the competitive nature of the U.S.-China relationship, many regard the race to 5G as a zero-sum game, whereby China’s success is our failure.

Furthermore, security and competition concerns have led the U.S. government to institute a “rip and replace” policy across the country, through which Chinese components—particularly those from companies such as Huawei—are torn out of existing infrastructure and substituted with components from the U.S. or countries we have closer economic ties with. The conference will feature several sessions discussing these topics and more.

Register for TPRC 2021

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Broadband Breakfast on Wednesday, September 15, 2021 — A ‘Consumer Confidence’ Survey for Broadband

BroadbandNow launches a “consumer confidence” survey.

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Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place every Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can watch the September 15, 2021, event on this page. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021, 12 Noon ET — BroadbandNow Presents a ‘Consumer Confidence’ Survey for Broadband

As part of its efforts to provide the latest research on the social, economic and political issues contributing to the digital impact and the impact of broadband on everyday life, BroadbandNow is launching a new survey among broadband leaders enthusiasts. Think of this as a “consumer confidence” survey for broadband.

Recently, there have been many changes regarding broadband at the federal, state, local and industry levels. BroadbandNow and Broadband Breakfast aim to launch the survey at a presentation during Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021, a mini-conference at the Broadband Community Summit in Houston, Texas, from September 27-30, 2021.

Join us on September 15, 2021, for this special Broadband Breakfast Live Online preview of the survey with John Busby, Managing Director of BroadbandNow, and Drew Clark, Editor and Publisher of Broadband Breakfast.

Panelists for the event:

  • John Busby, Managing Director of BroadbandNow
  • John B. Horrigan, Senior Fellow, Benton Institute on Broadband & Society
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher of Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

  • John Busby is the Managing Director of BroadbandNow.com, where millions of consumers find and compare local internet options and independent research is published about the digital divide. Prior to BroadbandNow, John held senior leadership positions at Amazon and Marchex. John holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Northwestern University.
  • John B. Horrigan, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow at the Benton Institute on Broadband & Society, with a focus on technology adoption and digital inclusion. Horrigan has served as an Associate Director for Research at the Pew Research Center and Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute. During the Obama Administration, Horrigan was part the leadership team at the Federal Communications Commission for the development of the National Broadband Plan (NBP).
  • Drew Clark, Editor and Publisher of Broadband Breakfast, also serves as Of Counsel to The CommLaw Group. He has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers negotiate telecom leases and fiber IRUs, litigate to operate in the public right of way, and argue regulatory classifications before federal and state authorities. He has also worked with cities on structuring Public-Private Partnerships for better broadband access for their communities. As a journalist, Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband, and – building off his work with Broadband Census – was appointed Executive Director of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois under Gov. Pat Quinn. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

BroadbandNow is a data aggregation company helping millions of consumers find and compare local internet options. BroadbandNow’s database of providers, the largest in the U.S., delivers the highest-value guides consisting of comprehensive plans, prices and ratings for thousands of internet service providers. BroadbandNow relentlessly collects and analyzes internet providers’ coverage and availability to provide the most accurate zip code search for consumers.

See also:

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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

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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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