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You Can’t Use an Old Map To Explore a New World: Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act

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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 There’s widespread agreement that the form gleans data that is inaccurate, outdated, and misconstrued, as we detail here, with one glaring example being that it allows ISPs to claim an entire census block as being served even if only one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.

We concur.

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.

Sean Gonsalves is a longtime former reporter, columnist, and news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He is also a former nationally syndicated columnist in 22 newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, Kansas City Star and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Washington Post and the International Herald-Tribune. An award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist, Sean also has extensive experience in both television and radio. Sean has made appearances on WGBH’s “Greater Boston” TV show with Emily Rooney and was a frequent guest on New England Cable News (NECN), commentating on a variety of Cape Cod tourist attractions. He left print journalism in 2014 to work as a senior communication consultant for Regan Communications and Pierce-Cote, advising a variety of business, non-profit and government agency clients on communication strategy. In October 2020, Sean joined the Institute for Local Self Reliance staff as a senior reporter, editor and researcher for ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative.

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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 & Data

Jeff Miller: Tools to Manage the Next-Generation Network Buildouts

Service providers that use GIS applications are able to reduce design time by 80 percent.

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The author of this expert opinion is Jeff Miller, Synchronoss Technologies CEO.

Today’s digital world is driving the insatiable need for fiber networks and connectivity, thus the thrust for widespread broadband buildouts and deployments worldwide. Broadband connectivity is the heartbeat for mobility, cloud applications, voice, video, and social media, not to mention home automation, IoT, and smart cities. As a result, service providers and operators are investing heavily in infrastructure, claiming their 5G networks are the largest or fastest or most reliable.

Initiatives like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund are aimed at bridging the digital divide and fast-tracking investment to deploy high speed fixed broadband service to rural areas and small businesses that lack it. The Federal Communications Commission’s $20.4 billion program requires that networks stand the test of time by prioritizing higher network speeds and lower latency.

A key element in the implementation of RDOF-backed projects is broadband mapping. The Federal Communications Commission is in the process of updating its current broadband maps with more detailed and precise information on the availability of fixed and mobile broadband services. The Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act, signed into law in March 2020, requires the FCC to change the way broadband data is collected, verified, and reported

As carriers build, expand, and upgrade their fiber network infrastructure, a great deal of planning is required, along with documenting the intricacies of design and engineering processes.

Streamlining and automating network planning and design processes through software can deliver accurate and timely network info for service providers, increase efficiency, and create opportunities for reducing costs.

GIS based systems are replacing volumes of paper, and outdated static CAD, Excel and Vizio files. They offer sophisticated tools to manage all aspects of network design and infrastructure management. Working with many service providers that use GIS applications, they are able to reduce design time by 80 percent and drastically cut other capital expenditures.

Automation is key

Having to rely on a system of manual processes to manage the fiber network makes it increasingly difficult to scale. Fortunately, with the introduction of automation into the network management process by utilizing an accurate physical network inventory in addition to geographic information system mapping, scalability becomes a much easier task.

Continuous planning and engineering tasks can ultimately become automated through software implementation. Automating network fiber management creates significant business value by shifting a service provider’s approach from reactive to proactive. A comprehensive and updated database for network architecture quickly allows for scenario analysis and capacity planning. Sharing automated processes across different organizations becomes much simpler and improves collaboration while reducing errors. This can allow staff to shift their focus to more pressing operational activities thus making the network more reliable.

Integration between different systems

Whether it is your enterprise GIS or outage monitoring system, it should be easy to interact with third-party systems to get the most out of the network data. Ideally, you should be able to receive an outage notification and use that location to track down the network and pinpoint the root cause to act and quickly resolve the situation before customers notice. This can help save time, money, and guarantee customer satisfaction.

Mobilize network data and increase field worker productivity

Utilizing a fiber networking and planning solution enables network information to be shared easily and quickly between the field and office to provide access to the information they need when they need it at any given time. Enterprise-wide access can provide timely and accurate network information for a wide range of communications service providers.

When it comes to service providers, expanded visibility into a network yields a greater overall awareness of the network. Automating third-party data exchange processes with accurate and up-to date inventory can optimize performance for field workers and guarantee customer satisfaction. Improved access to data can increase ROI by allowing cable locators and field techs to receive accurate confirmation before they arrive at a job. In the end, there will be fewer mistakes which ensures happier customers.

The right tools can result in improved scalability, reduced time to revenue, lower operational costs, and actionable insights that can be gleaned from network data.

Jeff Miller serves as President and CEO of Synchronoss Technologies. He previously served as President for IDEAL Industries Technology Group, following a 16-year experience with Motorola Mobility where he was Corporate Vice President of North America. Miller also serves on the Board of 1871, Chicago’s largest start-up incubator, and on the non-profit Boards of Aspire Chicago and Junior Achievement. This article 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 & Data

States Face Roadblocks in Challenge Processes, FCC Tries to Facilitate

The BEAD timeline looms large for many who worry that two months is insufficient time to correct the map.

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Photo of Kirk Burgee, chief of staff for the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau

WASHINGTON, November 30, 2022 – As state broadband offices scramble to submit challenges to the national broadband map, the Federal Communications Commission is working to provide much-needed resources to help stakeholders through the often-opaque challenge processes.

The FCC’s new broadband map, released in November, provides location-level data of broadband availability nationwide. The map is comprised primarily of two datasets: a list of all broadband serviceable locations – the “fabric” – and provider-submitted availability data. The accuracy of both can be challenged by the public through designated processes.

The FCC has endeavored to create a consumer-friendly challenge-process, said Kirk Burgee, chief of staff for the Wireline Competition Bureau. “We do try to make the process as flexible and accessible as it can be consistent with getting effective challenges and resolving them correctly,” he explained.

Burgee spoke at an FCC webinar held Wednesday to demystify the fixed-availability bulk-challenge process.

The FCC’s availability data will largely determine the distribution of the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program among the states. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the subdivision of the Department of Commerce which administers the BEAD funds, has advised the public to submit challenges by January 13, 2022, to ensure they are considered for BEAD grants – scheduled to be announced in June.

The immediate stakes of accurate mapping

If the FCC’s data is inaccurate when the NTIA calculates the allocations, some states could be shorted on badly needed funding. Some industry players say the map is concerningly inaccurate, and others say the FCC’s challenge processes may prove prohibitively complex.

Georgia has yet to submit fabric challenges, although it intends to, wrote Joshua Hildebrandt, the state’s director of broadband initiatives, in correspondence with Broadband Breakfast.

“So far, we have encountered a number of hurdles that have made a quick challenge submission difficult to do,” Hildebrandt explained. “Georgia is fortunate to have a considerable amount of data, which helped us create one of the nation’s first public statewide address-level broadband service maps.

“However, even with all of this applicable data in-house,” he added, “The FCC’s process for challenging fabric locations on a one-by-one basis still requires substantial effort and time.”

“The fabric is an enormous challenge, but we are very disappointed in the quality of the fabric and, more importantly, the insistence on using it and moving forward,” David Lukens, Connecticut’s broadband-mapping coordinator, told Broadband Breakfast.

“The FCC’s burdensome challenge process incentivizes…challenges focused only on potential BEAD project area,” he added.

Several state broadband officials told Broadband Breakfast that they have, by necessity, thus far submitted fabric challenges primarily for unserved areas, leaving the FCC’s data for numerous locations in better-served areas uncorrected. Some say, however, that they will submit additional challenges going forward.

The challenge process may work, but some say time is running short for BEAD

Spokespeople for the FCC and CostQuest have routinely acknowledged the errors in the map’s first draft and urged stakeholders to submit challenges to correct them. Some experts, including Scott Wallsten of the Technology Policy Institute, say inaccuracies are inevitable, but the challenge process will largely ameliorate them in time.

The BEAD timeline looms large for many who worry that less than two months – the interval between the map’s November release and January 13 – is insufficient time to correct the map. And like any massive undertaking, smaller entities struggle to keep up.

Kansas’ broadband director, Jade Piros de Carvalho, told Broadband Breakfast her small team lacks the bandwidth to submit a bulk challenge at all. Piros de Carvalho has encouraged her fellow Kansans to submit their own challenge. “Currently the FCC shows KS at about 5 percent unserved. We are more likely closer to 15 percent unserved, and that difference will have a direct negative impact on the dollars we receive,” she wrote Monday.

Maine will take a multi-stakeholder approach that will mobilize communities and regional partners, Andrew Butcher, president of the Maine Connectivity Authority, told Broadband Breakfast. In addition, the state itself plans to submit bulk-availability and fabric challenges by January 13, Butcher said.

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