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Broadband Mapping

Brian Mefford: A Radical and Realistic Approach to Rural Broadband Mapping

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Brian Mefford, Vice President of Broadband Strategy at Vetro, Inc.

When America built our railroads and highways, paper maps were updated continuously with feedback from the edge of the networks that provided regular status updates. When reports of obstacles were relayed (go through a mountain or around it, as an example) then strategists, managers, builders, policy-makers and locals could collaborate and adapt.

Today, we can use cloud-based software to ingest a full stack of geographic, demographic and relevant network inputs (from both the physical and logical layers of the network), so that we have a real-time view of our progress towards closing the digital divide once and for all.

In order for this to happen, we must flip the mapping model on its head so that we devote resources to mapping that directly support building the networks of the future to fill the gaps of today.

Prior to the pandemic there was broad agreement in the U.S. that the nation’s approach to broadband mapping was broken. The DATA Act should go a long way in dealing with much of the brokenness but, timing-wise, it couldn’t fully seize on the now-universal realizations of extreme rural broadband deficiencies laid bare by the pandemic.

The crisis created by COVID provides a call to action for a practical solution for the digital divide that provides real-time data insights. This need not be complicated.

Communities and states across the U.S. deserve broadband mapping that generates real-time broadband intelligence that not only informs funding decisions but also tracks network construction with full transparency and accountability.

This approach would create the proverbial triple win: good for citizens when the prospect of better connectivity is demystified; good for granting agencies who need a contextual “dashboard” view of funding applications, projects in-process and lit networks resulting from their funding; and good for internet service providers who increasingly need a simpler way to interface with and report to grantors and the public.

Consistent with South Carolina Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn’s H.R. 7302 – the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act – such an approach would enable a “central database to track the construction and use of and access to any broadband service infrastructure built using any Federal support.”

Federal and state government entities responsible for investing public broadband dollars must be able to follow the money in order to optimize for the greatest impact possible. As a benefit for companies building networks with public funds, they should receive the proper additional incentives for investing in the tools that will support a higher level of real-time status tracking of their network expansion.

Pandemic has heightened the urgency to build high-speed symmetrical connections

The urgency of the pandemic should call us to stop obsessing over the soft edges of the “served/unserved” parts of our maps. Choose a reasonably future-proofed threshold (designate a minimum 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical connection, for instance) and declare anything beyond those bounds as unserved. Then we can focus public funding towards providers willing to build out services within the gap areas and who will provide the ability for the public to track the status of their progress

For providers, the payoff on customer acquisition will more than sufficiently offset any competitive risk of oversharing, particularly when their network construction costs to build out hard-to-reach areas are being offset with subsidies. A fraction of provided public funding can support the ISPs adoption of a standard network funding proposal and tracking schema which can be integrated into an existing system or embraced as a new innovation in planning, designing and building a network.

By carving out funding for network builders to invest in more innovative tools for planning, designing, building and operating their networks, public funding will also create an impetus for new service provider entrants. It will speed up the pace of deployment and it will create an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability about what is being built with public dollars.

Such an approach will create greater visibility into the impact of programs, policies and funding of new broadband network construction and will provide a more nimble environment for making meaningful adjustments that will help us to more efficiently bridge the gaps.

Brian Mefford is Vice President of Broadband Strategy and Head of the Digital Divide Practice at Vetro, Inc. Formerly he founded Connected Nation and served most recently as the head of innovation and entrepreneurship for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. 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 expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Mapping

Broadband Breakfast Panelists Pitch Solutions for Finer Broadband Mapping Data

Experts argue for significant changes in order for broadband mapping efforts to be successful.

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Screenshot from Broadband Breakfast event on July 7th.

July 13, 2021—A federal mandate to get granular broadband data down to the doorstep would greatly speed up deployment, according to panelists on the latest Broadband Breakfast event last week.

Brian Webster, CEO of Wireless Mapping Inc., said on the panel the current Form 477 – which collects data on a broader census tract level to see which providers serve which areas – is not a great metric for measuring broadband coverage, and argued for better, higher-quality, and specific data.

That could be in the form of a federal mandate that would make 9-1-1 data public domain, he said on the July 7 event. This would allow other entities to determine specific buildings to better understand the layout of an area.

Webster pointed to New York as a state that had already done this and said that states that lock this data behind a paywall will continue to fall behind in their broadband deployment efforts. He said one of the great challenges is determining what kinds of buildings occupy a certain area; even if data accounts for a building, it may not distinguish a barn or a shed from an apartment or office building.

He also pointed to the U.S. national grid as an alternative to Form 477, where internet service providers would fill in their coverage areas down to the square meter across a blank grid representing the geography of the U.S., as opposed to simply using census blocks. He said that either of these approaches—or a combination of the two—would be an improvement on the current mapping models used by the FCC.

“[Form 477] gets to be problematic to use as a metric,” he said. “The problem is that it is one of those standardized things that everyone gravitates to.” Webster lauded the use of building data, such as those used in Costquests collection model, as it paints a more reliable picture the landscape that networks need to cover.

Problems with Form 477

The problems with Form 477, which relies on ISP data, have been documented going back years. Earlier this year, the FCC announced it has been working on improving its mapping by collating more granular data and unifying it, with participation from the industry, to help find missing connectivity spots.

The agency has been under fire since allegations emerged that it had used erroneous data from ISPs to provide snapshots of connectivity in rural America. The data, the 2019 allegation goes, was used by chairman Ajit Pai to ostensibly show that millions more Americans were connected to the federal speed standard of 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload from 2016 to 2017. That was then corrected in a subsequent press release.

In March, a bipartisan-signed letter addressed to Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called on the FCC to improve and update the existing maps.

Better data methods?

Mike Wilson, vice president of business development for data company CostQuest, argued why the existing data can be lacking and why his firm’s own data is more accurate.

On Wednesday’s live event, Wilson argued that CostQuest’s “Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric” has shown that some areas once believed to be served, according to the FCC 477 census data, are only partially served at best.

According to CostQuest’s data, when using the company’s algorithm, the number of unserved locations increased by almost five million when compared to FCC data.

“Think about how that [bad broadband data] impacts policy making, funding, and build-outs by state,” Wilson said. “What that means economically is that it is going to cost a lot more to serve these locations that are unserved.”

The impact of a vacillating definition of broadband

Brian Mefford, vice president of broadband strategy for Vetro Fiber, pointed to a potential pitfall, in that as efforts to shift the definition of broadband continue to grow, some areas that are currently considered served may drop off the map.

Currently, any network capable of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload is considered broadband. Some advocates and legislators believe that this definition is not aligned with how Americans currently use the internet and want broadband to be considered any network that is capable of 100 Mbps symmetrical service.

“This creates the need for states to play multi-leveled chess,” Mefford said. He explained that a situation like this could lead to a scramble to figure out who is served, who is now considered unserved, who is deserving of grant money, and how to attract new providers to supply broadband in the state.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place every Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can watch the July 7, 2021, event on this page. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021, 12 Noon ET — “Broadband Mapping is Back!”

Before the conversation of broadband deployment can even begin, accurate broadband maps must exist. Without sufficient mapping data, broadband providers may invest in areas that already have ample coverage, or worse yet, they may overlook areas desperately in need of coverage. Join Broadband Breakfast for a deep dive into the work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that broadband build-outs are cost effective, future-proof, and able to meet the demands of the people they serve.

Panelists:

  • Brian Mefford, Vice President of Broadband Strategy, Vetro Fiber
  • Mike Wilson, Vice President of Business Development, Costquest
  • Brian Webster, CEO, Wireless Mapping Inc.
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher of Broadband Breakfast

Brian Mefford joined VETRO with a wealth of experience helping to shape federal and state broadband programs and leading community broadband efforts in rural areas. Prior to VETRO, Brian founded Connected Nation, a nonprofit focused on enriching community broadband access. During his time at Connected Nation, Brian led the spin out of CNX, a platform for establishing public/private broadband network deployment partnerships that provided the nexus at which Brian first met and worked with the founders of VETRO to develop a 5G asset management solution. Brian has worked with government leaders at all levels to advance innovation, providing testimony regularly for state legislatures and the U.S. Congress and consulting with federal agencies including the FCC, NTIA, USDA and the State Department.

Mike Wilson, vice president of business development for Costquest, focuses his consulting efforts in the areas of rural telecommunications policy, universal service funding, interconnection, and operational analysis for wireless, competitive, and incumbent local carriers. Prior to joining CostQuest, he worked at Western Wireless/Alltel. He managed Wireless Interconnection, focusing on carrier negotiations and reducing Cost of Service for Alltel’s wireless business unit. Prior to Alltel’s merger with Western Wireless, his work was related to Universal Service Funding.

Brian Webster has been in the commercial wireless and broadband industry as an RF engineer and GIS/Mapping analyst for 31 years. For the past 19 years he has been a consultant where he worked on the National Broadband Map in the states of Illinois and New York. His broadband data analytics and mapping skills have been utilized by both governmental agencies and grant applications alike.

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. In addition to representing public and private providers on broadband issues, Drew is actively involved in issues surrounding interconnected Voice-over-Internet-Protocol service, spectrum licenses, robocalling including STIR/SHAKEN, and the provision of video franchises and “over-the-top” copyrighted content.

Panelist Resources:

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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Broadband Mapping

Washington State’s Russ Elliot Touts Mapping to the Doorstep as Key to Success

Washington State’s head of broadband says mapping to the premises paying dividends in the state.

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Photo of Russ Elliot

April 28, 2021—Washington state’s use of broadband mapping to the doorstep could be a model for deployment success in the country, said the head of the state’s broadband office.

“We built one of the most compelling maps in the country,” said Russ Elliot at the Route Fifty “Digital Divide” event Tuesday. “We’re mapping down to the doorstep,” adding in 2021, broadband mapping must occur on a much more precise level.

“Broadband is no longer census blocks, and counties,” Elliot said. “It’s now streets and addresses.”

The conference heard about Elliot’s role as head of the Washington State Broadband Office and how he means to achieve his goals in this role.

Funding and mapping

Elliot attributes much of Washington’s success to the specificity of their planning stage—both as it pertains to the funding required and their mapping efforts. Elliot made it clear that shovel-ready projects in Washington only receive the greenlight once they have made evaluations for very specific monies.

Though the cost of deployment may be high, Elliot argued that that cannot be an obstacle. “No longer can we be thinking in context of, ‘Well, that’s too expensive to build.’ We have to start thinking of context of, “What is it going to cost if we don’t [build]?’”

Specific funding coupled with what he touts as Washington’s superior mapping, is what Elliot claims has made Washington’s broadband deployment successful.

Before he was appointed to lead the Washington State Broadband Office by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2019, Elliot served as the broadband manager for the Wyoming Business Council. Before that, he had spent eleven years in the private sector working to deploy broadband to rural communities.

Community-first focus

Elliot established early on that his philosophy regarding deployment is that it must be a “community-up discussion.” He said that every dialogue about expanding broadband must begin at the community level, and that expansion will only be successful if the uniqueness of the needs of every community are recognized.

He said that before his team even begins the planning stage, they build a partnership with the communities in question by understanding who they will be serving. These partnerships foster communication, professional and personal relationships, and improved stakeholder collaboration. He explained that it was only after they facilitate this relationship of mutual understanding that they enter the planning stage.

Private partnerships

Elliot also emphasized that this not an effort that can be successful exclusively through public investment; he was adamant that expansion efforts will be most successful when communities leverage public-private relationships to accomplish their goals.

“Washington State understands that we didn’t become a state that’s very well connected based on all public infrastructure,” Elliot said. “We got there based on good, sound investment by private providers—we have to honor that investment, and bring forward public investment where the private investment doesn’t make sense.”

In conclusion, Elliot put it plainly, “Broadband doesn’t get built overnight,” he said. He acknowledged that this is a plan for the long haul, and it will take years to complete, “My five-year-old will be paying for it in about 15-20 years. If he is paying for it and he is not able to use the infrastructure that we’re paying for today, shame on me, and shame on all of us.”

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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.

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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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