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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

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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Broadband Mapping

FCC Opens Broadband Data Collection Program

The data will go toward improved maps, which the FCC chair said will be available by the fall.

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Screenshot of Bill Price, vice president of government solutions for LightBox

WASHINGTON, June 30, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday officially opened its new system to collect broadband service information from over 2500 broadband providers.

The Broadband Data Collection “marks the beginning of [the FCC’s] window to collect location-by-location data from providers that we will use to build the map,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a press release.

Screenshot of Bill Price, vice president of government solutions for LightBox

Broadband providers will be required to provide availability claims and supporting data. Supporting data will include sections such as “propagation modeling information” and “link budget information.” The deadline to submit is September 1.

Rosenworcel said the agency has established consistent parameters that require broadband providers to submit data using geocoded locations that will “allow [the FCC] to create a highly precise picture of fixed broadband deployment, unlike previous data collections, which focused on census blocks, giving us inaccurate, incomplete maps.”

With this information, the FCC will build a common dataset of locations in the United States where fixed broadband service can be installed, called the “fabric.” Rosenworcel said that this fabric will serve as a “foundation upon which all fixed broadband availability data will be reported and overlaid in our new broadband availability maps.”

Following the completion of the maps, government entities and internet service providers will be given a challenge window where availability claims may be challenged based on submitted data.

Rosenworcel previously said that the improved broadband maps will be available by the fall.

States expect to be busy fact-checking these claims as they are released, said panelists at Broadband Breakfast Live Online Event Wednesday. States will be involved in individual challenging processes and will be expected to provide information on availability through individual speed testing.

States want to get these maps right because they serve as a broadband investment decision making tool, said Bill Price, vice president of government solutions for LightBox, a data platform that is helping states build broadband maps. That means many states are committed to obtaining accurate local coverage data to utilize federal and state funding.

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.

Panelists:

  • Bill Price, Vice President, Government Solutions, LightBox
  • Dustin Loup, Program Manager, Marconi Society’s National Broadband Mapping Coalition
  • Ryan Guthrie, Vice President of Solutions Engineering at ATS
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

Bill Price, Vice President of Government Solutions, is responsible for LightBox broadband data and mapping solutions for government. Bill has more than 40 years in telecommunications and technology services development and operations. His track record includes delivering the Georgia statewide location level broadband map, the first fiber metropolitan area network in the U.S., and launching BellSouth’s internet service. LightBox combines proven, leading GIS and big data technology to transform how decisions are made in broadband infrastructure planning and investment.

Dustin Loup is an expert on internet governance and policy and program manager for the Marconi Society’s National Broadband Mapping Coalition. Much of his work centers on improving digital inclusion and establishing transparent, open-source, and openly verifiable mapping methodologies and standards.

Ryan Guthrie is VP of Solutions Engineering at Advanced Technologies & Services.  He started with ATS in 2006 and has been involved in all aspects of the business from sales and marketing through solution design and implementation.  Ryan also manages regulatory solutions for ATS and has been deeply involved with the federally funded broadband projects by assisting ISPs with their performance measures testing compliance.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

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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