Without good information from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the federal government is essentially shooting in the dark when it comes to determining how to best target the allocation of resources for underserved and unserved communities.
Even private sector investments are less efficient because of the lack of good data about broadband availability and pricing. That’s why the second major section of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act (AAIA), currently languishing in the U.S. Senate, aims to address the nebulous nature of broadband data at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
In this third installment of our series on the AAIA, we explore the ”Title II – Broadband Transparency” section of the Act, which requires the FCC to adopt rules to gather accurate and up-to-date information from ISPs about broadband service plan prices and subscription rates. It also requires the FCC to collect data that will allow the federal government to assess the resiliency of the nation’s broadband network in the event of a natural disaster or emergency.
Better Data is Needed
Anyone who closely follows FCC news is already familiar with the problems associated with the agency’s broadband coverage maps, which most experts agree overstate actual broadband coverage. Though recent studies indicate there may be as many as 41 million people who lack access to fixed broadband in the United States that meets minimum speed of 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps), the FCC claims that number is closer to 18 million. It’s a big discrepancy with big dollar implications, as the coverage maps are the basis upon which agencies and states make major funding decisions.
The problem lies with the FCC’s existing Form 477, which seeks service availability data from ISPs. There’s widespread agreement that the form gleans data that is inaccurate, outdated, and misconstrued, as we detail here, with one glaring example being that it allows ISPs to claim an entire census block as being served even if only one residence in that block could have access to service.
Although the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act was signed into law in March of this year to get more granular data and improve transparency, the GOP-led FCC has yet to deliver.
Immediately after the DATA Act was signed into law, outgoing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that because Congress didn’t appropriate any related funds, the FCC would be unable to implement the Act. The FCC has enough control over its internal funds that if Chairman Pai had wanted accurate maps, the agency would have created them.
The “Broadband Transparency” portion of the AAIA seeks to remedy the situation by appropriating $24 million to the FCC to get the job done and goes further than what is required under the DATA Act by requiring the FCC to gather information on ISP pricing, which includes “any additional taxes and fees.” It also requires the FCC to revise the rules, if necessary, to “verify the accuracy of data submitted.”
Beyond the detailed information on broadband coverage and pricing, the bill also requires the FCC to collect “data necessary to assess the resiliency of the broadband Internet access service network in the event of a natural disaster or emergency,” though it doesn’t say exactly how or what data should be gathered.
Distribution and Protection of Data
Of course, it’s one thing to require the FCC to collect this data. But the question of who has access to that data goes to the heart of transparency. In Section 2003, the bill addresses that, requiring the FCC to make the data available to federal agencies; state agencies such as broadband offices and public utility commissions; local governments; and individuals and organizations “conducting research for noncommercial purposes or public interest purposes.”
The last part of Section 2003 directs the FCC to not share the data unless “the Commission has determined that the receiving entity or individual has the capability and intent to protect any personally identifiable information contained in the data.”
Lastly, under Section 2005, the bill requires the FCC to issue rules “to promote and incentivize widespread adoption of the broadband consumer labels” the FCC established in 2016 and that broadband consumer labels should be provided in “a simple-to-understand format describing the key factors consumers need to know when considering broadband service, including: price, data allowances, speeds, and management practices.”
Finally, the bill would require the FCC to hold a series of public hearings to “assess how consumers currently evaluate [I]nternet service plans and whether existing disclosures are available, effective, and sufficient.”
An essential part of getting everyone online
Although the “Broadband Transparency” section of the bill may not get the media focus that other big ticket items in the bill will get, Matt Wood, Vice President of Policy and General Counsel for Free Press Action, sums up its significance succinctly:
While the deployment and financing strategies will understandably draw attention in an infrastructure bill, its digital equity, affordability and pricing transparency provisions are just as essential or more so for getting everyone online.
Stay tuned for the next installment of this series on “Title III – Broadband Access.”
Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Sean Gonsalves, a senior reporter, editor and researcher for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally published on MuniNetworks.org, the piece is part of a collaborative reporting effort between Broadband Breakfast and the Community Broadband Networks program at ILSR.
Broadband Mapping Coalition Seeks to Bring Openness Back to Internet Data
The coalition will play a crucial role in broadband data as government implements the largest expenditure of broadband funds.
June 17, 2022 – Non-profit organizations and academic researchers seeking to ensure the openness and transparency of broadband data collection efforts have created an organization, the National Broadband Mapping Coalition, seeking to gather resources on data and mapping.
Shepherded by the Marconi Society, this National Broadband Mapping Coalition has filed comments before the Federal Communications Commission and is ramping up its efforts to be a leading voice for open and transparent broadband data.
The group is led by Dustin Loup, of the public interest group Marconi Society. Loup has been actively involved in the internet governance and policy space for years. Together with Measurement Lab (which is led by Lai Yi Ohlsen), a non-profit group that has been collecting broadband speed data since 2008, these two organizations are poised to promote the vital role of open broadband data as the U.S. Commerce Department implements the largest expenditure of federal broadband funds in history.
Join Broadband Breakfast’s Drew Clark in Friday’s Broadband.Money Ask Me Anything! with Lai Yi Ohlsen and Dustin Loup, on June 17, 2022, at 2:30 p.m. ET.
Why we need open broadband data
In a recent piece on Broadband.Money, Sarah Lai Stirland details the importance of actual speed data in challenging existing Federal Communications Commission broadband data:
- If you click on the census blocks around Newcastle in Broadband Money’s online map, you’ll see that the Federal Communications Commission data shows the blocks as “served” because at least one location has access to internet service of 1000 Mbps symmetrical service. That information is self-reported data from the form 477 that the FCC requires internet service providers to provide.Speed tests from Ookla and the non-profit M-Lab, however, indicate that that census block is, at the very least, “underserved” by the standards established by federal legislation such as the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act. M-Lab says that average internet speeds in the area are 22 Mbps * 5 Mbps and Ookla reports 63 Mbps * 6 Mbps.
Lai Stirland’s profile of Ohlsen and Loup also discusses her skills in computer science and project management, and Loup’s history of involvement in the internet by the Arab Spring.
On a personal level, I’ve been a strong advocate of the importance of public and open broadband data for more than 15 years. See “U.S. broadband infrastructure investments need transparency,” ArsTechnica, February 10, 2009. That op-ed recounts our efforts to obtain FCC Form 477 data in 2006 and 2007, followed by founding BroadbandCensus.com in January 2008 to crowdsource the collection of broadband speed and availability data.
But this was superseded by the National Broadband Map, version 1.0, launched in February 2011. In that first national broadband map, State Broadband Initiatives (like the Partnership for a Connected Illinois) played a primary role in the collection of provider data about broadband availability.
But that national broadband map failed for two reasons:
- Everyone in a census block was considered “covered” if one person in a census block was “covered,” or served with 25 Mbps * 3 Mbps broadband.
- Broadband speeds were self-reported by providers, and there was limited fact-checking, or crowdsourcing, of actual broadband speeds.
Broadband mapping is about to become one of the most central issue in the rollout of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Without the crucial check of open and public data, broadband mapping runs the risk of falling victim to the same challenges of the last decade.
Who is the National Broadband Mapping Coalition?
The National Broadband Mapping Coalition lays out the problem, and the solution, extremely well on its web page – which is worth quoting at length:
- U.S. policymakers, advocates, and researchers need access to more comprehensive and reliable data on broadband coverage in order to solve the digital divide. The data currently available is insufficient and often misleading. Through a partnership with leaders who value transparent, peer-reviewed, open data, we’re innovating a new approach to mapping broadband network analytics that will help stakeholders gain data-driven insight into this critical issue.
- The Problem
Millions of U.S. residents live without adequate broadband access. While the FCC collects self-reported broadband coverage data from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), that data is often inaccurate and incomplete, and does not offer a detailed, granular picture of connectivity and affordability gaps. Without more complete data, localities face barriers in making their case for securing state and federal funding that is intended to address these digital divides.We believe transparent measurement standards based on new and existing open-source and openly verifiable methodologies are necessary to provide communities with the tools they need to collect data on connectivity speeds, pricing, and availability.State, local, and U.S. Governments restrict data collection and/or sharing for a variety of reasons, resulting in the inability to provide full transparency. The work of the National Broadband Mapping Coalition is intended to strengthen government broadband initiatives and provide the public with much-needed performance information….
We have convened a national coalition of leaders in digital inclusion, technology, research, and policy. Responding to an increased focus on broadband adoption and measurement at the federal level, as well as the continued failure to consistently and verifiably map existing broadband infrastructure, performance, and value, this coalition aims to establish best practices and enable communities, governments, and individuals to access information they need….
In addition to the Marconi Society and M-Lab, other charter partners of the coalition include Google (which has supported M-Lab since its launch), the Internet Society, the Institute for Local and Self-Reliance, and X-Lab. Read more about its vision and mission.
“Ten Years After the Beginning of Broadband Data Collection Efforts, M-Lab Gathers to Celebrate,” Broadband Breakfast, August 8, 2018
“M-Lab Celebrates 10 Years of Broadband Speed Tests, Discusses Work with Schools and Libraries,” Broadband Breakfast, August 16, 2018
Priorities for open broadband data research
Rather than creating one more map, the National Broadband Mapping Coalition is beginning to bring a greater clarity around the importance of open and transparent data for broadband.
In its recent filing at the FCC, the coalition discussed the comparability of quality of service metrics, with a particular focus on the basic forms of measurement: download and upload speeds and latency. But they say,
- Speeds and latency are common metrics many people are familiar with, but they are not the only metrics of Internet performance that matter to the quality of service. Jitter, packet loss, and bufferbloat (latency under load) each have a direct impact on actual experience of Internet users. When any of these metrics are performing poorly, it can be especially detrimental to the performance of real-time applications that support activities, such as a telehealth appointment, job interview, virtual classroom participation, or meeting a new grandchild from thousands of miles away. These impacts on the quality of experience can occur regardless of the bandwidth. Additional quality of service metrics such as network uptime and the mean repair time to restore access are important metrics. The Coalition recommends that the Commission takes steps to identify a set of measurable quality of service indicators, including but not limited to those described in these comments.
No one said that broadband mapping was going to be easy. The more rocks that you turn over, the more dirt that you find. But the easiest way to improve and to course-correct is to be scientific. And that starts with open and transparent data.
Learn more by joining Broadband Breakfast’s Drew Clark in Friday’s Broadband.Money Ask Me Anything! with Lai Yi Ohlsen and Dustin Loup, on June 17, 2022, at 2:30 p.m. ET.
FCC Announces Video Tutorials to Assist Broadband Data Collection Filers
The tutorials are designed to assist filers in the ongoing effort to create updated broadband maps.
WASHINGTON, May 31, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission announced Tuesday a tutorials program that will help guide providers to submit mapping data when the collection process opens up late next month.
The online help center is designed to provide filers with video tutorials and other resources to help them navigate new broadband data filing requirements and broadband availability data. It comes after the agency announced earlier this year that it is opening up the process of accepting broadband coverage data beginning June 30.
Jean Kiddoo, chair of the FCC’s Broadband Data Task Force, said this program would “ensure that filers can hit the ground running on June 30.” The filing window will remain open until the deadline on September 1, 2022.
This effort to improve the accuracy of broadband data is a part of the FCC’s ongoing task of releasing updated broadband maps, which are expected to be published by the fall.
Many stakeholders in the industry have argued that the existing maps lack the granularity necessary to provide internet service providers, municipal entities, consumers, and the federal government with a complete picture of how served Americans are. The maps are expected to guide billions in federal dollars.
In March, CostQuest Associates began the work to create the broadband fabric that would be used for the existing maps following a failed challenge by LighBox. Individual states have also begun work on their own mapping independent of federal efforts.
Community Crowdsourcing Efforts Essential to Accessing Federal Broadband Funding
In the absence of reliable federal broadband mapping data, communities are taking matters into their own hands.
KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 27, 2022 –Two data experts speaking at the Mountain Connect conference here on Wednesday said it was vital for the Federal Communications Commission to maintain transparency about its methods as it produces an updated broadband map.
The release of $42.5 billion in federal broadband funding through the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is contingent upon new broadband maps being produced by the Federal Communications Commission.
Agency Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has committed to delivering such maps by the fall. During a House Energy and Commerce Committee Oversight hearing on March 31, when asked about progress, she said: “Absolutely, yes. We will have [complete] maps in the fall.”
Still, many are skeptical.
In particular, states and localities are involved in data collection, too – if only to have data to challenge FCC maps. Lai Yi Ohlsen, director of Measurement Lab, and Dustin Loup, program manager of the National Broadband Mapping Coalition for the Marconi Society, said that detailing methodologies will be important to the challenge process.
Loup recommended that communities announce speed tests and include a survey in order to get a sense of where the participant is located, what plan they are paying for and encourage participants to take the test multiple times to see how Internet speeds fluctuate at different hours of the day.
Ohlsen and Loup also said that communities should provide speed tests in different languages and partner with community anchor institutions, local media, and radio stations for publicity.
Questions about the new federal map
The new broadband “fabric” under construction by the FCC aims to address granularity issues of previous maps by enabling address-by-address data. But as to the legitimacy of the new FCC maps, the duo said that the maps will still paint an inaccurate picture of where broadband is and is not accessible across the country.
This is because the data used to create the new maps, they said, will be based upon industry-advertised broadband speeds and not actual user-experienced speeds.
This is particularly worrisome because funds under the NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program will be awarded to each state and territory will be primarily based on the number of locations considered to be unserved with broadband, as defined by 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) down by 3 Mbps up. This is why cities, counties, and states are currently creating strategies to crowdsource residents in order to develop their own broadband maps in the event that the FCC misrepresents internet access options available to their residents.
Although the NTIA is required by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to use the FCC’s new mapping fabric, they will also be subject to new scrutiny.
In particular, local governments, nonprofit organizations and broadband service providers can produce their own data to challenge the eligibility of a locality for grant funding.
The challenge process will begin once the FCC’s new maps are made public. Any government entity or nonprofit with conflicting evidence will be able to file their findings through an FCC platform, said Ohlsen and Loup.
Providers will be automatically notified of the challenge and have 60 days to respond to the challenger, in order to try and resolve the inconsistencies. If the entities fail to resolve differences in the conflicting data, the FCC will be responsible for making the final decision.
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.
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- TikTok Data Concerns, Broadband Data Collection System, Internet Access on COVID-19 Mortality
- FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel Emphasizes 100 Percent Broadband Adoption
- Broadband Speeds Have Significant Impact on Economy, Research Director Says
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