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Broadband Mapping & Data

With FCC Broadband Maps Denounced as ‘Terrible,’ Members of Congress Drill Into Details For Improvement

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Photo of hearing by Masha Abarinova

WASHINGTON, September 11, 2019 – Given the widespread support for more accurate maps of broadband availability in Congress, lawmakers and telecom experts said Wednesday that the Federal Communication Commission’s mapping structure and reporting mechanism have room for improvement.

“It is not an exaggeration to say this FCC’s terrible broadband data is its Achilles heel,” said House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., in the opening remarks of Wednesday’s hearing.

He cited information from the advocacy group Free Press to demonstrate that one carrier alone was overstating its deployment by 2.2 million consumers, throwing off the FCC’s entire estimate of unserved Americans.

Republicans largely agreed. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said that Congress must ensure that the FCC and the Universal Service Program are relying on sufficiently accurate and granular information.

“Granular” and “shape-file mapping” were the buzzwords echoed by the hearing’s witnesses, indicating the urgent need to revamp the current mapping system.

Shape files are a good step forward, said Shirley Bloomfield, Chief Executive Officer of the NCTA – The Rural Broadband Association.

However, she added, granularity is not the same as accuracy. A uniform standard for reporting is necessary to provide more efficient broadband.

Under FCC’s form 447, said James Assey, Executive Vice President of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, broadband coverage must be reported on a census block level. This is flawed methodology that inaccurately depicts underserved areas.

Polygon-shaped files can better detect unserviceable areas within unserved areas, he said.

The divide extends far beyond unserved communities, said Dana Floberg, policy manager at Free Press Action. Only 22 percent of households with average incomes below $20,000 can subscribe to wired broadband services.

That is why Free Press Action supports the Broadband Data Improvement Act and the Mapping Accuracy Promotion Services Act for more granular coverage, she said.

US Telecom CEO Jonathan Spalter, touted his association’s broadband mapping pilot project, which he said demonstrated that the nation has the skills and ability to quickly and affordably map the gap.

FCC standards are inconsistent with the metrics broadband companies use to analyze service, said Grant Spellmeyer, vice president of federal affairs and public policy at U.S. Cellular. It will take more than $25 billion to achieve universal broadband service.

Serviceable location fabric helps determine where broadband is and where it isn’t, said James Stegeman, president and CEO of CostQuest Associates, which participated in US Telecom’s pilot project. The quality of location serviceable data will be improved regardless of the method that the FCC decides to employ, he said.

Members of Congress speaking at the hearing were concerned about the logistics of developing improved mapping.

Rep. Robert Latta, R-Ohio, inquired about the time length needed to develop a comprehensive broadband mapping program.

According to Spalter, it could take 11 to 15 months to develop the groundwork for a more granular approach.

It’s also important for the public to participate in the process and understand how these maps work, said Spellmeyer.

Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., asked how a crowdsourcing process can improve broadband mapping.

Consumers on the ground would be able to give feedback on the coverage they’re getting, Bloomfield said. However, they need to first understand how fast their internet speed is.

The proprietary route of collecting data on underserved areas would be quicker and cost less money, said Stegeman. The alternative to that is an open-source data set, which would require a digital verification process.

Billions of dollars have been spent so far by the government and the public, said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., yet we still have an inadequate broadband supply.

Affordability is critical, said Rep. David Loebsack, D-Iowa. This isn’t a rural or urban issue; this is on the national level.

The America people are getting frustrated, said Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio. It’s not that tough, he said, to figure out who has broadband and who doesn’t.

This initiative is about mapping America’s future, said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. She said that the country needed to ask itself if this legislation can meet future challenges.

Also weighing in was the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. “For far too long, policymakers have had only opaque information derived from inaccurate maps to guide where subsidies for broadband should be allocated,” said WISPA Vice President of Government Affairs Christina Mason, in a statement.

Broadband Mapping & Data

Broadband Mapping Coalition Seeks to Bring Openness Back to Internet Data

The coalition will play a crucial role in broadband data as government implements the largest expenditure of broadband funds.

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Photo of Dustin Loup of the National Broadband Mapping Coalition

June 17, 2022 – Non-profit organizations and academic researchers seeking to ensure the openness and transparency of broadband data collection efforts have created an organization, the National Broadband Mapping Coalition, seeking to gather resources on data and mapping.

Shepherded by the Marconi Society, this National Broadband Mapping Coalition has filed comments before the Federal Communications Commission and is ramping up its efforts to be a leading voice for open and transparent broadband data.

The group is led by Dustin Loup, of the public interest group Marconi Society. Loup has been actively involved in the internet governance and policy space for years. Together with Measurement Lab (which is led by Lai Yi Ohlsen), a non-profit group that has been collecting broadband speed data since 2008, these two organizations are poised to promote the vital role of open broadband data as the U.S. Commerce Department implements the largest expenditure of federal broadband funds in history.

Join Broadband Breakfast’s Drew Clark in Friday’s Broadband.Money Ask Me Anything! with Lai Yi Ohlsen and  Dustin Loup, on June 17, 2022, at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Why we need open broadband data

In a recent piece on Broadband.Money, Sarah Lai Stirland details the importance of actual speed data in challenging existing Federal Communications Commission broadband data:

  • If you click on the census blocks around Newcastle in Broadband Money’s online map, you’ll see that the Federal Communications Commission data shows the blocks as “served” because at least one location has access to internet service of 1000 Mbps symmetrical service. That information is self-reported data from the form 477 that the FCC requires internet service providers to provide.Speed tests from Ookla and the non-profit M-Lab, however, indicate that that census block is, at the very least, “underserved” by the standards established by federal legislation such as the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act. M-Lab says that average internet speeds in the area are 22 Mbps * 5 Mbps and Ookla reports 63 Mbps * 6 Mbps.

Lai Stirland’s profile of Ohlsen and Loup also discusses her skills in computer science and project management, and Loup’s history of involvement in the internet by the Arab Spring.

On a personal level, I’ve been a strong advocate of the importance of public and open broadband data for more than 15 years. See “U.S. broadband infrastructure investments need transparency,” ArsTechnica, February 10, 2009. That op-ed recounts our efforts to obtain FCC Form 477 data in 2006 and 2007, followed by founding BroadbandCensus.com in January 2008 to crowdsource the collection of broadband speed and availability data.

But this was superseded by the National Broadband Map, version 1.0, launched in February 2011. In that first national broadband map, State Broadband Initiatives (like the Partnership for a Connected Illinois) played a primary role in the collection of provider data about broadband availability.

But that national broadband map failed for two reasons:

  • Everyone in a census block was considered “covered” if one person in a census block was “covered,” or served with 25 Mbps * 3 Mbps broadband.
  • Broadband speeds were self-reported by providers, and there was limited fact-checking, or crowdsourcing, of actual broadband speeds.

Broadband mapping is about to become one of the most central issue in the rollout of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Without the crucial check of open and public data, broadband mapping runs the risk of falling victim to the same challenges of the last decade.

Who is the National Broadband Mapping Coalition?

The National Broadband Mapping Coalition lays out the problem, and the solution, extremely well on its web page – which is worth quoting at length:

  • U.S. policymakers, advocates, and researchers need access to more comprehensive and reliable data on broadband coverage in order to solve the digital divide. The data currently available is insufficient and often misleading. Through a partnership with leaders who value transparent, peer-reviewed, open data, we’re innovating a new approach to mapping broadband network analytics that will help stakeholders gain data-driven insight into this critical issue.
  • The Problem
    Millions of U.S. residents live without adequate broadband access. While the FCC collects self-reported broadband coverage data from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), that data is often inaccurate and incomplete, and does not offer a detailed, granular picture of connectivity and affordability gaps. Without more complete data, localities face barriers in making their case for securing state and federal funding that is intended to address these digital divides.We believe transparent measurement standards based on new and existing open-source and openly verifiable methodologies are necessary to provide communities with the tools they need to collect data on connectivity speeds, pricing, and availability.State, local, and U.S. Governments restrict data collection and/or sharing for a variety of reasons, resulting in the inability to provide full transparency. The work of the National Broadband Mapping Coalition is intended to strengthen government broadband initiatives and provide the public with much-needed performance information….
  • Coalition
    We have convened a national coalition of leaders in digital inclusion, technology, research, and policy. Responding to an increased focus on broadband adoption and measurement at the federal level, as well as the continued failure to consistently and verifiably map existing broadband infrastructure, performance, and value, this coalition aims to establish best practices and enable communities, governments, and individuals to access information they need….

In addition to the Marconi Society and M-Lab, other charter partners of the coalition include Google (which has supported M-Lab since its launch), the Internet Society, the Institute for Local and Self-Reliance, and X-Lab. Read more about its vision and mission.

See also:

Community Crowdsourcing Efforts Essential to Accessing Federal Broadband Funding

Ten Years After the Beginning of Broadband Data Collection Efforts, M-Lab Gathers to Celebrate,” Broadband Breakfast, August 8, 2018

M-Lab Celebrates 10 Years of Broadband Speed Tests, Discusses Work with Schools and Libraries,” Broadband Breakfast, August 16, 2018

Priorities for open broadband data research

Rather than creating one more map, the National Broadband Mapping Coalition is beginning to bring a greater clarity around the importance of open and transparent data for broadband.

In its recent filing at the FCC, the coalition discussed the comparability of quality of service metrics, with a particular focus on the basic forms of measurement: download and upload speeds and latency. But they say,

  • Speeds and latency are common metrics many people are familiar with, but they are not the  only metrics of Internet performance that matter to the quality of service. Jitter, packet loss, and  bufferbloat (latency under load) each have a direct impact on actual experience of Internet  users. When any of these metrics are performing poorly, it can be especially detrimental to the  performance of real-time applications that support activities, such as a telehealth appointment,  job interview, virtual classroom participation, or meeting a new grandchild from thousands of  miles away. These impacts on the quality of experience can occur regardless of the bandwidth.  Additional quality of service metrics such as network uptime and the mean repair time to restore  access are important metrics.  The Coalition recommends that the Commission takes steps to identify a set of measurable  quality of service indicators, including but not limited to those described in these comments.

No one said that broadband mapping was going to be easy. The more rocks that you turn over, the more dirt that you find. But the easiest way to improve and to course-correct is to be scientific. And that starts with open and transparent data.

Learn more by joining Broadband Breakfast’s Drew Clark in Friday’s Broadband.Money Ask Me Anything! with Lai Yi Ohlsen and  Dustin Loup, on June 17, 2022, at 2:30 p.m. ET.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

FCC Announces Video Tutorials to Assist Broadband Data Collection Filers

The tutorials are designed to assist filers in the ongoing effort to create updated broadband maps.

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Photo of Jean Kiddoo from Twitter

WASHINGTON, May 31, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission announced Tuesday a tutorials program that will help guide providers to submit mapping data when the collection process opens up late next month.

The online help center is designed to provide filers with video tutorials and other resources to help them navigate new broadband data filing requirements and broadband availability data. It comes after the agency announced earlier this year that it is opening up the process of accepting broadband coverage data beginning June 30.

Jean Kiddoo, chair of the FCC’s Broadband Data Task Force, said this program would “ensure that filers can hit the ground running on June 30.” The filing window will remain open until the deadline on September 1, 2022.

This effort to improve the accuracy of broadband data is a part of the FCC’s ongoing task of releasing updated broadband maps, which are expected to be published by the fall.

Many stakeholders in the industry have argued that the existing maps lack the granularity necessary to provide internet service providers, municipal entities, consumers, and the federal government with a complete picture of how served Americans are. The maps are expected to guide billions in federal dollars.

In March, CostQuest Associates began the work to create the broadband fabric that would be used for the existing maps following a failed challenge by LighBox. Individual states have also begun work on their own mapping independent of federal efforts.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Community Crowdsourcing Efforts Essential to Accessing Federal Broadband Funding

In the absence of reliable federal broadband mapping data, communities are taking matters into their own hands.

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Photo of Lai Yi Ohlsen and Dustin Loup by Jericho Casper

KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 27, 2022 –Two data experts speaking at the Mountain Connect conference here on Wednesday said it was vital for the Federal Communications Commission to maintain transparency about its methods as it produces an updated broadband map.

The release of $42.5 billion in federal broadband funding through the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is contingent upon new broadband maps being produced by the Federal Communications Commission.

Agency Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has committed to delivering such maps by the fall. During a House Energy and Commerce Committee Oversight hearing on March 31, when asked about progress, she said: “Absolutely, yes. We will have [complete] maps in the fall.”

Completed Maps Will ‘Absolutely’ Be Available This Fall, FCC’s Rosenworcel Says

Still, many are skeptical.

In particular, states and localities are involved in data collection, too – if only to have data to challenge FCC maps. Lai Yi Ohlsen, director of Measurement Lab, and Dustin Loup, program manager of the National Broadband Mapping Coalition for the Marconi Society, said that detailing methodologies will be important to the challenge process.

Loup recommended that communities announce speed tests and include a survey in order to get a sense of where the participant is located, what plan they are paying for and encourage participants to take the test multiple times to see how Internet speeds fluctuate at different hours of the day.

Ohlsen and Loup also said that communities should provide speed tests in different languages and partner with community anchor institutions, local media, and radio stations for publicity.

Questions about the new federal map

The new broadband “fabric” under construction by the FCC aims to address granularity issues of previous maps by enabling address-by-address data. But as to the legitimacy of the new FCC maps, the duo said that the maps will still paint an inaccurate picture of where broadband is and is not accessible across the country.

This is because the data used to create the new maps, they said, will be based upon industry-advertised broadband speeds and not actual user-experienced speeds.

This is particularly worrisome because funds under the NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program will be awarded to each state and territory will be primarily based on the number of locations considered to be unserved with broadband, as defined by 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) down by 3 Mbps up. This is why cities, counties, and states are currently creating strategies to crowdsource residents in order to develop their own broadband maps in the event that the FCC misrepresents internet access options available to their residents.

Challenge process

Although the NTIA is required by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to use the FCC’s new mapping fabric, they will also be subject to new scrutiny.

In particular, local governments, nonprofit organizations and broadband service providers can produce their own data to challenge the eligibility of a locality for grant funding.

The challenge process will begin once the FCC’s new maps are made public. Any government entity or nonprofit with conflicting evidence will be able to file their findings through an FCC platform, said Ohlsen and Loup.

Providers will be automatically notified of the challenge and have 60 days to respond to the challenger, in order to try and resolve the inconsistencies. If the entities fail to resolve differences in the conflicting data, the FCC will be responsible for making the final decision.

Broadband Breakfast on June 29, 2022 — Broadband Mapping and Data

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022, 12 Noon ET –Broadband Mapping and Data

Now that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Notice of Funding Opportunity has been released, attention turns to a core activity that must take place before broadband infrastructure funds are distributed: The Federal Communications Commission’s updated broadband maps. Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as implemented by the NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, these address-level maps from the FCC will determine the allocation of funds among states and serve as a key source of truth. Our panelists will also consider the role of state-level maps, the NTIA challenge process and other topics. Join Broadband Breakfast as we return to one of the subjects that we know best: Broadband data and mapping.

Panelist resources:

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