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Senate Committee Simultaneously Praises Broadband Providers and Scorns Broadband Maps

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Screenshot of Senate hearing

May 13, 2020 — “Among the 10 largest countries in world, the U.S. is the only nation that reported no substantial degradation last month in terms of speed,” said US Telecom CEO Jonathan Spalter at a Senate hearing on “The State of Broadband Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic” Wednesday.

The assertion, which Broadband Breakfast was not able to verify, piqued the interest of many of the gathered senators, some of whom attended via videoconference.

Spalter credited US Telecom member companies for working hard. He said the organization Smart Cities helped convert 18 different convention centers around the country into emergency hospitals for COVID-19 victims.

Spalter also touted member company Verizon’s $55 million donation to COVID-19 related causes and member company Century Link’s help in converting the battleship USS Mercy into a floating hospital.

Spalter recalled asking Smart City board member Marty Ruben why he continued to help convert convention centers into hospitals.

“There was never any question,” Ruben responded, according to the US Telecom CEO. “These are our communities.”

When witnesses brought up the unexpected challenges that internet service providers face in ensuring enough speed for uploads due to heavy use of symmetrical data-munchers like Zoom, Senate Committee Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., cut them off to get a direct answer.

“Are we doing well on upload?” he asked.

“That’s the beauty of fiber,” NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield replied, referring to fiber optic cables’ high-speed and symmetrical properties.

Spalter also named a few key ingredients in the American economic recipe that were effective in improving broadband speeds: network investment, a regulatory light touch and a forward-looking perspective.

Similarly, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., identified Europe’s heavy-handed approach as being the reason why European countries are reporting slower than average broadband speeds.

Broadband mapping also comes in for criticism at the hearing

But that didn’t stop the committee from beating everyone’s favorite dead horse: The Federal Communications Commission’s broadband maps.

Senators were very conscious of the fact that not all broadband data can be trusted due to unreliable maps.

Large portions of rural America were left out of the FCC’s official broadband map that both industry and government rely on to make future decisions, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

“It actually blows my mind,” he added.

Tester was both encouraging of proactive broadband buildout efforts and skeptical that buildout money would be used efficiently, given the map’s troubled past, worrying that the FCC might be acting recklessly by “building out because [it] can’t get the information on maps correct.”

Bloomfield responded that since the FCC’s initiatives to encourage buildouts initially grant funds to the most underserved, it is actually “a wise course of action.”

Steven Berry, the CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, agreed. “I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he assured the testy senator.

Wicker agreed with the witnesses’ reasoning but waved off their relatively lax attitudes, saying that the Rural Digital Opportunities Fund auction has to happen no later than October.

The senators’ concern with broadband mapping underscored their recognition of the importance of universal broadband in America.

“We need high speed internet,” Tester said. “Otherwise we don’t have health care at a distance, we don’t have tele-education.”

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Broadband Mapping

Garland McCoy: Some State Attorneys General Are Preparing to Take the FCC to Court

While some will “cash out,” other state broadband officials will seek the full measure of federal broadband infrastructure funds due.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Garland McCoy, Executive Director of Precision Ag Connectivity and Accuracy Stakeholder Alliance

Let me start by saving the time of those state broadband officials who are going to accept the recently released FCC Broadband Map Data at face value and take NTIA’s “cash out,” and in doing so, forgo participation in the available FCC challenge process. For those state broadband officials, the insights, and recommendations I provide below will be of little interest to you. 

If the past is any prelude to the future, the Internet Service Providers will use the same challenge criteria to successfully throw out the crowdsourced and bulk data that states have gathered for their own maps. As I detailed in my recent article on Broadband Breakfast, the FCC published specifications for its challenge process on September 15, 2022.

This directive gives ISPs authority to challenge data drawn from their respective service territories, leaving states with little choice but to accept the FCC’s map. The only notable exception is California, which has put in place its own statewide device-driven data gathering methodology, and we consider its data as likely challenge-proof. 

Not all is lost for states seeking to challenge the FCC’s maps

But all is not lost for other states. By the end of the first quarter of next year I firmly believe there will be some state broadband officials who will seek to pursue the full measure of federal broadband infrastructure funds due them, and not simply acquiesce to a smaller portion of funds that is supported by the flawed FCC map.

I base this assumption on new methodologies now available to states, which will bring the same type of credible validation and metering to broadband service at the end-user level that has been available, and required, for decades with other important utilities such as electricity, water, and natural gas. In other words, these methodologies will allow consumers to determine if they are getting true broadband speed connectivity – and frankly whether or not they are getting what they are paying for.

These state broadband officials have reviewed the recently released FCC broadband map and have compared it to their own respective state broadband maps. And not surprisingly, what they are finding is an FCC map that vastly overstates the amount of broadband connectivity in their states, and in doing so, vastly reduces the amount of federal dollars that state will receive. And these differences are significant. It could mean as much as a loss of tens of millions of dollars in smaller states and up to half a billion dollars or more for larger states. 

What these state officials will ultimately find is irrefutable evidence that many of the ISPs doing business in their state have been systematically providing significantly less service speed and quality than their customers’ terms of service agreements stipulate.

States are beginning to work with their state attorneys general on lawsuits

Knowing this and considering how the FCC has not run a transparent and straightforward process – and has used the calendar in a way to run out the clock on states, you can see why some state broadband officials have begun working with their state attorneys general to not only prepare to challenge the FCC data, but to take their case to court. 

Consider the calendar issue alone: The FCC released its long-anticipated new map data on November 18, 2022, and is giving states until January 13, 2023, to respond – with the major holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s falling in the interim.

If you are one of these state broadband officials currently considering your options to challenge and/or litigate, then we can play a vital role in your efforts. You will need to ensure that your state broadband map data is litigation-ready by putting in place bullet-proof methodologies and highly credible network monitoring devices/meters. This data can be used to support your case for the full broadband infrastructure funding that your State is entitled to receive.  Additionally, these same devices and methodologies can be used to support any state lawsuits against ISPs for false/deceptive advertising and breach of the spirit, if not the letter, of customer “terms of service” contracts. 

Importantly, our device-driven methodology also focuses solely on the premium customers of ISPs in rural counties of a state, which establishes what FCC refers to as the “available service” for a given ISP’s service territory. 

You have the power to truly close your state’s broadband connectivity gap by fully utilizing the historic level of federal infrastructure funding that has been set aside for this purpose, which in turn will bring accountability and equity to broadband network services for your citizens. 

If you want a citizen-centric partner in these initiatives, please visit our website and contact me at the email address provided below. PAgCASA is a non-profit organization focused on promoting rural prosperity, and we are utilizing industry standard network monitoring/metering devices, same as used by the largest ISPs, litigation-ready methodologies, and an expert team and partnerships to accomplish our goals.

Garland T. McCoy, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Precision Ag Connectivity and Accuracy Stakeholder Alliance, is a long-time non-profit veteran in the fields of technology and telecommunication policy having served as Founder and CEO of the Technology Education Institute. Garland was recently an adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s iSchool, teaching information policy and decision making, and can be reached at garland.mccoy@pagcasa.org. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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

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Broadband Mapping

FCC Challenge Process Important for Getting Accurate Maps, Says Technology Policy Institute

Better and more up-to-date information can come from harmonizing existing data sets, updated whenever a given map has new information.

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Screenshot of Scott Wallsten, president and senior fellow for the Technology Policy Institute.

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2022 – Errors in the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband maps are inevitable, but they can be iteratively mitigated through an ongoing challenge process, said Scott Wallsten, president and senior fellow for the Technology Policy Institute, at the Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber for Breakfast livestream Wednesday.

The FCC made the preliminary version “fabric” map to state broadband entities and others earlier this year, and the agency will accept challenges thereto on a rolling basis that started on September 12.

The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program’s $42.5 billion will be distributed among the states based on the fabric’s data.

Wallsten’s joined Fiber for Breakfast to discuss a recently-published column, which identified three obstacles to the creation of accurate broadband maps in accordance with Congress’s statutory directions.

First, Wallsten argues, mapping efforts are out of date almost immediately because broadband infrastructure is constantly being built.

Second, he says that the immense amount of data needed for building-by-building broadband mapping ensures that errors will be committed.

Third, Wallsten writes, “Because money follows the maps, they are inherently political.” Wallsten said states have an incentive to overreport underserved areas to obtain more funding. FBA President and CEO Gary Bolton rejoined that such overreporting will likely be balanced by challenges from internet service providers, who have an incentive to overreport served areas to protect their existing service areas.

Wallsten says a collaborative, iterative process – like the FCC’s challenge process – is key: “Better and more up-to-date information can come from harmonizing existing data sets about internet access, updated whenever a given map has new information.”

This isn’t Wallsten’s first criticism of Washington’s mapping strategy. At TPI’s Aspen Conference last year, he told Broadband Breakfast that mapping errors led to many avoidable defaults on Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grants.

TPI also created the Broadband Connectivity Index, a dataset which maps the speed and availability of internet, as well as a detailed broadband map.

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Broadband Mapping

Utah’s Broadband Maps Are Ready for Federal Funding, Broadband Director Says

‘The efforts that have been done in the past have been a great foundation.’

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SALT LAKE CITY, July 13, 2022 – Utah’s work on its own broadband availability maps means it is prepared for billions in federal funds coming from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, said the state’s broadband director at a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event Wednesday.

“The efforts that have been done in the past have been a great foundation,” said Rebecca Dilg, director of the Utah Broadband Center, the state’s broadband office.

Utah’s decade-old broadband availability maps are updated every six months and Dilg said they provide a foundation for upcoming money from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, the $42.5-billion initiative from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Utah counties work with the state broadband office to continually update a layer on the map that shows individual addresses, added Kelleigh Cole, director of strategic initiatives at the Utah Education Network, a state research network. This layer allows the broadband office to see whether broadband access extends to specific addresses.

Mapping data, said Dilg, prepares the state broadband office to address “doughnut holes” where urban centers receive high-speed coverage, but surrounding areas do not. The BEAD program requires that unserved residents are served first, but Utah’s broadband office is optimistic that the funds will reach into underserved areas, including cities where antiquated technology, like digital subscriber lines, are primarily used.

The Federal Communications Commission assured that its nationwide broadband coverage maps will be available by the fall. The Broadband Data Collection portal on the FCC website is currently open for internet providers and governments to submit coverage data.

Utah is home to the second largest city in the country fully connected to fiber, West Valley City, which is also the largest U.S. city connected via an open access network.

Screenshot of Rebecca Dilg, director of the Utah Broadband Center.

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