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Broadband Mapping

FCC ‘Coloring Outside the Lines’ on Broadband Mapping, Say Critics at Next Century Cities Event

David Jelke

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Panel on broadband mapping at Next Century City event

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2020 – The broadband data collection activities of the Federal Communication Commission are inaccurate by an “order of magnitude,” agency critics said at a Next Century City panel discussion Thursday on “Creating Accurate and Reliable Broadband Deployment Data.”

The panel kicked off with X-Lab Director Sascha Meinrath speaking in grand terms about why broadband matters. He related broadband access in the 21st century to “maximizing wellness” and lowering the death rate in areas as diverse as domestic violence and the opioid epidemic.

Joined by others on the panel, Meinrath lit a broadside into the FCC’s Form 477 data collection efforts as a collection of “hyperbolic statements.” He said FCC efforts were off by an “order of magnitude.”

The FCC has “colored outside the lines” by including regions that theoretically could support broadband but in really are isolated.

These regions are then seen in the eyes of the government as “covered” and therefore ineligible to receive much-needed support. Meinrath also warned that there are thousands of similar overstatements “lurking in the data.”

Meinrath compared the FCC’s faulty collection of data to the crowdsourced collection of information begun by Measurement Lab, which was founded in 2008 when Meinrath was at New America, but is now a free-standing project no longer formally affiliated with the think tank.

The Measurement Lab data is freely available to the public and researchers. Microsoft has made use of the data, as well as its own broadband data, to demonstrate weaknesses with the FCC’s mapping collection process.

Only four states satisfy the minimum criteria for broadband connectivity per the FCC’s own definition, said Meinrath.

La Yi Ohlsen, project director of Measurement Lab, also spoke about the need to collect data at the city level. Also known as M-Lab, the project provides communities with surveys to send to their members so that data at the ground level can be collected and then compared to national data sets.

A good example of this approach was illustrated by fellow panelist and San Antonio Smart City Director Candelaria Mendoza.

Her office runs economic impact surveys in the 10 districts of her city to better understand the relationship between lack of access and poverty. She also listed three main data points she wishes to collect from households: Access to broadband, access to devices, and digital literacy skills.

The panel capped off with the solution-based question “how do we improve data collection moving forward?” Mendoza offered her desire to move from being reactive about data to proactive.

Meinrath closed the panel similarly to how he opened, painting the picture of disconnection as an “existential threat” to the poor.

David Jelke was a Reporter for Broadband Breakfast. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in neuroscience. Growing up in Miami, he learned to speak Spanish during a study abroad semester in Peru. He is now teaching himself French on his iPhone.

Broadband Mapping

FCC Speed Test App To Improve Broadband Mapping, Agency Says

The agency hopes its new speed test will inform an initiative for more accurate broadband maps.

Tim White

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April 12, 2021 – As part of the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to collect comprehensive data on broadband availability across the United States, the agency is encouraging the public to download its Speed Test app, it announced Monday.

The FCC is using data collected from the app as part of the Measuring Broadband America program. The app provides a way for consumers to test the performance of their mobile and in-home broadband networks. In addition to showing network performance test results to the user, the app provides the test results to the FCC while protecting the privacy and confidentiality of program volunteers. It is available on the major app stores.

“To close the gap between digital haves and have nots, we are working to build a comprehensive, user-friendly dataset on broadband availability,” Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “Expanding the base of consumers who use the FCC Speed Test app will enable us to provide improved coverage information to the public and add to the measurement tools we’re developing to show where broadband is truly available throughout the United States.”

The network coverage and performance information gathered from the Speed Test data will help to inform the commission’s efforts to collect more accurate and granular broadband deployment data. The app will also be used in the future for consumers to challenge provider-submitted maps when the Broadband Data Collection systems become available.

The FCC has been working to improve its broadband mapping system from Form 477 for several years. Development of the Digital Opportunity Data Collection system began in August 2019, and Rosenworcel created a task force in February 2021 to advance that system. On April 7, the agency announced May 7 as the date for establishing the Digital Opportunity Data Collection.

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Broadband Mapping

Closing Digital Divide Starts With Accurate Maps, Says Gigi Sohn

Samuel Triginelli

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Screenshot of Gigi Sohn from the webinar

March 15, 2021 – Gigi Sohn, former president of advocacy group Public Knowledge, said authorities at the Federal Communications Commission and the states need to start with good broadband maps to see where connectivity gaps exist.

“Start at square one, and that is with good data and good maps,” said Sohn, who was speaking at a virtual LGBT Bar Association event on March 10. “Right now, the data the FCC is using to determine where there is broadband and where there is not is grossly inaccurate.”

Good policy cannot be done with bad maps, she said, but she added progress is being made with Congress’ passing of the Broadband DATA Act and the FCC receiving than $98 million to deploy mapping. However, she noted that the FCC is moving “a little slower than she would prefer” to build these maps.

In December, the FCC awarded $9.2 billion in funding from the first round of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Sohn said, however, that the money was doled out with bad maps.

She said part of the problem is that different federal agencies are lacking coordination with maps, which creates duplicate decisions and more bureaucracy.

One solution lies in getting the state agencies involved. “The states cannot be left out of the calculation. There must need to be a blueprint to where the funding is going to go so there is no duplication and everybody can be served,” said Sohn.

“Unfortunately, because it is taking the FCC so long to build these maps, the states are doing by themselves,” she added.

Georgia and Maine, for example, are beginning to go it alone with their own broadband maps.

“I do believe the state maps are going to be more granular than what the federal government is going to come up with,” Sohn said.

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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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