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Broadband Mapping

Senate Committee Simultaneously Praises Broadband Providers and Scorns Broadband Maps

David Jelke

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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.”

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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