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Broadband Mapping & Data

In One of Last Acts as FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai Tries to Fix Broadband Maps

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Photo of Ajit Pai at the FCC Chairman's Dinner in December 2019 by Drew Clark

January 20, 2021 – In one of his last official acts before departing the Federal Communications Commission and stepping down as its chairman on Wednesday, Ajit Pai on Tuesday secured a unanimous vote from the agency for new rules implementing the Digital Opportunity Data Collection.

The new rules, which will apparently finalize the new broadband mapping rules for the agency, are meant to improve data collection and broadband deployment information for the FCC’s work to close the digital divide.

In a press release, the agency said it was seeking to clarify rules governing fixed and mobile broadband internet access service providers in reporting their availability and coverage data.

Additionally, speed and latency information for fixed technologies are also required to be reported and whether broadband services are offered to residential or business customers. “The Commission’s top priority is to make sure that every American has high-speed Internet access . . . we need to know exactly where broadband is and isn’t available,” Pai said in a statement.

The FCC order allows providers to address issues with fixed and mobile data map coverage. Mobile providers will need to submit a heat map showing signal levels from each active cell site for each fixed wireless, 5G or LTE propagation map.

Mapping broadband in the U.S. has been a significant challenge. Many people are unaware of broadband in general, and national funding towards mapping and understanding it lags behind other demanding budget allocations. The FCC also moved to exclude schools, libraries, and healthcare providers from the new data collection rules, blocking information about community anchor institution connectivity.

This upset the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, which said, “while the SHLB Coalition firmly supports the need to improve our nation’s flawed broadband maps, we are disheartened by the FCC’s decision to exclude schools, healthcare providers, and other anchor institutions from this mapping effort,” said the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

“The Commission has lost sight of the bigger picture imperative to map the full scope of broadband availability across the U.S.”

Additionally, American broadband mapping resources are scattered and disorganized. The National Broadband Plan of 2010 called for all anchor institutions to have gigabit broadband capacity by the year 2020.

And the National Broadband Map once offered everyday consumers and internet users to see fiber, cable, DSL, and wireless service provider areas but has become stale data as federal funding for it ended in 2015.

Awaiting federal actions, states have taken broadband mapping into own hands

Despite challenges with federal funding and attention to broadband issues, states like California have taken the matter into their own hands.

For example, in 2010, California lawmakers established the California Broadband Council. It was created to help state agencies improve broadband access to residents. The California Emerging Technology Fund, a quasi-governmental nonprofit founded in 2005, is an active member of the council. The fund initially received $60 million that funded grants to improve digital literacy, educate local leaders, and support technology adoption in communities across the state.

In August 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Executive Order No. 73-20, tasking state agencies to communicate with private sector companies to understand and predict current and future demand for broadband. The pressure to follow through on it comes from the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

The order demonstrates California’s desire to “better allocate resources and manage policies and programs” supporting broadband development. It also directed the CBC to create a new State Broadband Action Plan that must be reviewed annually.

The California order also set a minimum broadband speed goal of 100 Megabits per second (bps download speed for state agencies within Newsom’s control, with a purpose to guide infrastructure investments that would benefit residents.

That same month, the California Department of Education announced a special discounted service by T-Mobile and “special pricing” from Apple on its iPad + cellular devices, made available on top of its education volume pricing.

Broadband Mapping & Data

Service Providers Should Partner with Organizations to Comprehend Broadband Data

For companies to have successful builds, they need to ensure they know how to interpret their data.

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Left to right: Paul Sulisz, Gerry Lawlor, and Brian Medford.

HOUSTON, October 4, 2021 — Broadband service providers should work with organizations to understand their own broadband data sets and maps, according to experts.

Speaking at the Broadband Communities Summit last week, Biarri Networks CEO Paul Sulisz explained that even if someone has data, that does not mean that they will have the ability to act on it or follow through on their plans. Ensuring that data sets are interoperable is crucial, he said.

“It is important to understand and agree on how to aggregate data,” Sulisz said. “There are so many people that start on the journey [to build out broadband], go down the wrong path, and then need a rescue mission.”

Broadband experts agree that without the ability to integrate broadband data sets and maps, many broadband expansion efforts will hardly be able to get off the ground.

Sulisz noted that many of these wrong paths are chosen because people are working with data that is incomplete or that they do not understand, and that is why it is so important to work with organizations that are capable of parsing through and comprehending data.

“If [companies] do not do the planning up front with people who have a good track record—it is going to be tough,” Sulisz continued. “Talk to people who have a good track record—go do your homework.”

Gerry Lawlor, the CEO of Open5G, said it is important for those working on broadband projects to understand how to define demand and how to secure long-term investment to meet that demand. He said that often companies that just put their heads down and think that hard work will pull an effort through are the same companies that need to be rescued.

Both men emphasized the need for companies to be prepared for accelerated growth, explaining that once one neighborhood gets faster service, the neighbors will want it, and so on. They said that it is crucial for data logged in potentially disparate systems to communicate effectively to sustain scalable growth.

As it stands now, many companies are being left to their own devices until new Federal Communications Commission mapping data is released sometime next year, though these efforts have inspired less confidence in the wake of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund – following the award process, several companies have had to reevaluate their builds since many of the supposedly unserved areas they bid on were already served.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Sustainability and Scalability are Crucial For State Broadband Projects, Say State Experts

Partnerships for broadband need to emphasize community engagement to improve connectivity

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Photo courtesy Heartland Forward

September 21, 2021—Public-private partnerships for broadband need to emphasize community engagement to improve connectivity in regions that need help, state broadband officials said Tuesday.

Speaking at a “Connecting the Heartland Conference Series,” BroadbandOhio CEO Peter Voderberg highlighted the state’s focus on ensuring student broadband connectivity. He highlighted the $50 million BroadbandOhio Connectivity Grant, for which more than 900 school districts have applied.

Funds could be allocated to subsidize the cost of internet for students without broadband, hotspot service plans, providing improved public Wi-Fi infrastructure, or otherwise improving existing connectivity, he said. Collaborative efforts between school districts and ISPs have been able to bring the overall cost of broadband down for consumers.

Voderberg also described a $250 million Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant to bring internet to areas with connections slower that 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.

This program would subsidize private efforts by compensating ISPs for the difference between the cost of the project and the price it would take to make the effort profitable for them.

Illinois’ early efforts at broadband progress

Matt Schmit, director of the Illinois Broadband Office, pointed to “the three legs of the stool” for broadband expansion: Access, adoption, and utilization.

Illinois’ plans and programs were designed with this three-pronged approach in mind, he said, crediting Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker for establishing programs prioritizing broadband two years before the rest of the country is now doing.

Two key aspects of Illinois’ efforts are technology neutrality and a focus on scalability. “[We believe in focusing on] investing in an area and making sure that we have the kind of investment, service, and infrastructure that is going to serve [a] community well into the years ahead.”

In terms of prioritizing which communities and regions get service, Illinois considers any area with services less than 25 x 3 Mbps to be unserved, much like the federal government’s current broadband standard.

However, unlike the federal government, Illinois also has a category for what it considers to be underserved, which is any area below 100 x 20 mpbs. He called the state’s approach a compromise between advocates that have called for a broadband standard of 100 x 100 Mbps or even 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps). On the other hand, he said, are voices that argue against “future-proof” technologies, saying that gigabit speeds are gratuitous.

The most challenging aspect of providing service, however, is simply identifying which areas are served, underserved, or lacking coverage completely, he said.

“We don’t necessarily trust the maps that are out there—even our own,” he said, adding that mapping “is the start of the conversation, not the end of the conversation.”

It will only be through conversations with applicants, communities, and providers that enough data is collected to sufficiently serve the state, “We are investing in a community or investing in an area for the long term,” Schmit continued, “Because what we’re going to invest in is fully scalable for the needs, not only today, but for tomorrow.”

The event was hosted by National Urban League, agribusiness Land O’Lakes, Inc., and Heartland Forward, a think tank focused on rural economic development.

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Broadband Data

TPRC Conference to Discuss Definition of Section 230, Broadband, Spectrum and China

Broadband Breakfast briefly breaks down the topics to be discussed at the TPRC conference.

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Photo collage of experts from TPRC

WASHINGTON, September 17, 2021 – The TPRC research conference on communication, information, and internet policy is right around the corner and it is set to address some of the most pressing issues facing Big Tech, the telecom industry, and society at large. We cover some topics you can expect to see covered during the conference on September 22 to 24.

If the recent election cycle and the Covid-19 pandemic have taught us anything, it is that the threat of misinformation and disinformation pose a greater threat than most people could have imagined. Many social media platforms have attempted to provide their own unique content moderation solutions to combat such efforts, but thus far, none of these attempts have satisfied consumers or legislators.

While the left criticizes these companies for not going far enough to curtail harmful speech, the right argues the opposite— that social media has gone too far and censored conservative voices.

All this dissent has landed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996—once a staple in the digital landscape—in the crosshairs of both Democrats and Republicans, as companies still scramble to strike a compromise to placate both sides of the aisle.

Definition of broadband

The future of broadband classifications is another topic that will also be touched on during the conference. This topic quickly became relevant at the outset of the pandemic, as people around the country began to attend school and work virtually.

It became immediately clear that for many Americans, our infrastructure was simply insufficient to handle such stresses. Suddenly, legislators were rushing to reclassify broadband. Efforts in Washington, championed primarily by Democrats, called for broadband standards to be raised.

The Federal Communications Commission’s standing definition of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload appeared to become unpopular overnight, as calls for symmetrical service, like 100 x 100 Mbps speeds, and even gigabit speeds became a part of the conversation.

Many experts were quick to strike back, particularly those operating in the wireless community, arguing that the average consumer does not need 100 Mbps symmetrical speeds, let alone one gigabit, and such efforts only amounted to fearmongering that would hurt the deployment of broadband infrastructure to unserved communities.

These experts contend that shifting the standards would diminish the utility and viability of any technology other than fiber, as well as delaying when unserved communities (as they are currently defined) can expect to be served. Broader topics surrounding rural broadband and tech-equity will also be prominently featured—addressing many of the questions raised by Covid-19 across the last year and a half.

Future of spectrum

Finally, the quest for spectrum will be discussed at the conference.

As ubiquitous 5G technology continues to be promised by many companies in the near future, the hunt is on to secure more bandwidth to allow their devices and services to function. Of course, spectrum is a finite resource, so finding room is not always easy.

Indeed, spectrum sharing efforts have been underway for years, where incumbent users either incentivized or are compelled to make room for others in their band—just like we saw the military in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service band, and more recently between the Department of Defense and Ligado in the L band.

Even though these efforts are ongoing, there is still disagreement in the community about how, if at all, sharing spectrum will impact users in the band. While some argue that spectrum can be shared with little, if any, interference to incumbent services, others firmly reject this stance, maintaining that sharing bandwidth would be catastrophic to the services they provide.

On China

China is also going to be a significant topic at the conference. Due to the competitive nature of the U.S.-China relationship, many regard the race to 5G as a zero-sum game, whereby China’s success is our failure.

Furthermore, security and competition concerns have led the U.S. government to institute a “rip and replace” policy across the country, through which Chinese components—particularly those from companies such as Huawei—are torn out of existing infrastructure and substituted with components from the U.S. or countries we have closer economic ties with. The conference will feature several sessions discussing these topics and more.

Register for TPRC 2021

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