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Michael Jones: Maps and Data Analysis are the Keys to Effectively Targeting Broadband Subsidies

The key to states’ success on infrastructure builds lies in the analysis of the data they collect.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Michael Jones, director of communications at the Technology Policy Institute

Maps and data analysis are keys to ensuring that the broadband subsidies included in the bipartisan infrastructure law are effective. The Federal Communications Commission is working to improve its data’s accuracy, and as reported by Broadband Breakfast, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo believes new and improved maps could be released this summer.

But new and better data alone is not sufficient. States need a set of tools that will help them analyze many datasets to make educated decisions about how to use the funds that National Telecommunications and Information Administration will allocate to them.

Technology Policy Institute started its own broadband mapping initiative to make that possible. TPI Broadband’s nationwide map and state mapping series combine information from nine sources and filter their results across 24 geographic areas, ranging from Census blocks to entire states. Our cloud-based platform does more than simply display maps.

The software can generate graphs and scatter plots that give users a visual representation of trends and correlations. It also allows users to combine datasets and harness the power of regression analysis to explore the relationships between them.

The Broadband Connectivity Index combines adoption, availability and other data to create scores that can help policymakers identify areas that need focus, including whether those areas may need special data collection efforts.

The platform includes even more datasets and tools that we have not yet included on the public-facing user interface. We can answer questions like who appears to be benefiting from the affordability programs or the relationship between E-Rate funds and school performance, to name a few.

Additionally, we keep the data up to date. Our maps are designed to update nearly instantaneously when new datasets come out.

Not only does this ensure that our data is always fresh, but also helps our platform complement the many data collection efforts out there. For example, we hope to incorporate the FCC’s new Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric data once it is released.

In a recent Broadband Breakfast Expert Opinion column, former FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly said, “Universal broadband has not been achieved, in part, because previous grant funding has often been misspent.” The funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to substantially bridge the digital divide, and it is imperative that states are able to take full advantage.

By giving decision-makers the resources they need to develop cost-effective solutions geared towards truly underserved areas in their communities, TPI’s broadband maps can play a pivotal role in ensuring this funding connects as many Americas as possible.

Michael Jones, Jr., is the director of communications at the Technology Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on the economics of innovation, technological change, and related regulation. The Technology Policy Institute’s mission is to advance knowledge and inform policymakers by producing independent, rigorous research and by sponsoring educational programs and conferences on major issues affecting information technology and communications policy.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.

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.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Robocalls, Rip and Replace, Pole Attachments: More Notes From the FCC Oversight Hearing

Commissioners and House lawmakers discussed key topics at a contentious hearing.

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Screenshot of commissioners at the hearing Thursday.

WASHINGTON, December 1, 2023 – All five Federal Communications Commissioners took part in a lengthy and at times contentious House oversight hearing on Thursday.

Commissioners urged Congress to restore the FCC’s authority to action spectrum, which expired in March and left the nation’s airwaves in limbo, and to fund the Affordable Connectivity Program, the low-income internet subsidy set to dry up in April of next year. 

GOP lawmakers FCC Republicans also took the chance to slam efforts by the commission’s Democratic majority.

The discussion touched on other issues including robocall prevention, rip and replace funding, and pole attachments.

Robocalls

The commission has been taking action on preventing robocalls this year, kicking off an inquiry into using artificial intelligence to detect fraud, blocking call traffic from 20 providers for lax enforcement policies and issuing hundreds of millions in fines. In August the commission also expanded the STIR/SHAKEN regime – a set of measures to confirm caller identities – to all providers who handle call traffic.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel asked multiple times for three Congressional actions she said would help the commission crack down on scam calls: a new definition for “autodialer,” the ability to collect fines, and access to Bank Secrecy Act information.

The Supreme Court limited the definition of autodialers in 2021 to devices that store or produce phone numbers with random or sequential number generators. That leaves the scope of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which guides the FCC’s authority, “stuck in the nineties,” according to Rosenworcel.

“A lot of scam artists are using technologies no longer covered” by the act, she said. “We can’t go after them.”

On collecting robocall fines, that authority currently rests with the Department of Justice, and Rosenworcel is not the first to tell Congress the agency’s enforcement has been lax. Industry groups at an October Senate hearing cited slow DOJ action as a major reason FCC fines on the issue often go uncollected.

The Bank Secrecy Act requires financial institutions to keep records on certain transactions to help law enforcement agencies track money laundering and other criminal activity. The FCC cannot access information governed by the act, which Rosenworcel said would help the commission go after repeat scammers.

“These scam artists set up one company, we shut them down, they go and set another one up,” she said.

Rip and replace

Commissioners urged Congress to fund the rip and replace program. Congress allocated $1.9 billion to reimburse broadband companies for replacing network equipment from Chinese companies deemed to be national security threats, mainly Huawei and ZTE.

The FCC was tasked with overseeing the program and found in 2022 that another $3 billion would be needed to get the work done. The Biden administration joined a chorus of lawmakers and broadband companies in calling for Congress to fill the gap, but legislation on the issue has yet to be passed.

“We’re providing 40 cents on the dollar to a lot of small and rural carriers,” said Rosenworcel. “They need more funds to get the job done.”

The commission has been granting extensions to providers unable to get the work done on time. In addition to supply chain issues, some small providers cite a lack of funding as the reason they’re unable to replace insecure equipment.

Pole attachments

Commissioners expressed a willingness to shift some of the burden of utility pole replacements off of broadband providers as they attach new equipment.

“If a pole is getting replaced,” Commissioner Brendan Carr said, “there’s probably a role for the FCC to say that the pole owner should bear somewhere north of the cost of $0.”

The commission has authority in 26 states over most pole attachment deals between utility pole owners and telecommunications companies looking to expand their networks. The issue of who pays for poles that need to be replaced to accommodate more communications equipment is contentious, with telecoms arguing utilities force them to pay for replacing already junk poles. 

After spending years sifting through thousands of comments, commissioners have apparently been persuaded. Rules up for a vote at the commission’s December meeting would limit the scenarios in which utilities could pass full replacement costs on to attachers.

Broadband funding map

Rosenworcel repeatedly asked lawmakers to work with the commission on ensuring its broadband funding map is kept up to date.

The FCC launched its funding map in May to keep track of the myriad federal broadband subsidy efforts and avoid funding the same areas multiple times. The Department of Agriculture, the FCC, and the Treasury Department each oversee separate broadband funding programs, in addition to the Commerce Department’s upcoming $42.5 billion broadband expansion effort.

The commission has signed memoranda of understanding with those agencies on providing data for the funding map, but Rosenworcel asked the subcommittee for help ensuring the agencies follow through and respond to FCC requests for their funding data. 

“If you could help us make sure those other agencies respond to us with data, you’ll see where there are problems, duplication, areas we haven’t reached,” she said.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Connect20 Summit: Data-Driven Approach Needed for Digital Navigation

The NTIA’s Internet Use Survey doesn’t delve deeply enough into why people choose not to adopt broadband.

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WASHINGTON, November 20, 2023 – Better data about broadband adoption is necessary to closing the digital divide in the U.S., a broadband expert said during a panel at the Connect20 Summit here.

Speaking on a panel about “The Power of Navigation Services,” the expert, Jessica Dine of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said states lack comprehensive data on why some residents remain offline. This information is essential for digital navigator programs to succeed, she said.

She highlighted the need for standardized national metrics on digital literacy and inclusion, and said that federal surveys – including the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey – provide insights on barriers to technology adoption. But more granular data is required.

She also said that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Internet Use Survey doesn’t delve deeply enough into why people choose not to adopt the internet. For instance, understanding the nuances behind the ‘not interested’ response category could unveil targeted intervention strategies.

In particular, Dine praised Louisiana and Delaware for surveying communities on their connectivity needs, including overlaying socio-economic indicators with broadband deployment data. But she said more work is required to quantify the precise challenges different populations face.

Other panelists at the session, including Michelle Thornton of the State University of New York at Oswego, emphasized the importance of tracking on-the-ground efforts by navigators themselves.

Bringing in her experience from the field of healthcare navigation, Thornton underscored the value of tracking navigator activities and outcomes. She suggested a collaborative model where state-level data collection is supplemented by detailed, community-level insights from digital navigators.

The panel was part of the Connect20 Summit held in Washington and organized by Network On, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, and Broadband Breakfast.

The session was moderated by Comcast’s Kate Allison, executive director of research and digital equity at Comcast.

To stay involved with the Digital Navigator movement, sign up at the Connect20 Summit.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

House Subcommittee Witnesses Disagree on AI for Broadband Maps

The Communications and Technology Subcommittee held a hearing Tuesday on using AI to enhance communication networks.

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Screenshot of Nicole Turner Lee, director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation, at the hearing Tuesday.

WASHINGTON, November 14, 2023 – Experts disagreed on the potential for artificial intelligence to aid broadband mapping efforts at a House hearing on Tuesday.

Courtney Lang, a vice president at tech industry trade group ITI, said AI could be used to improve the quality of current broadband maps.

A machine learning model could do that by using past data to identify buildings that are likely to be accurately marked as having adequate broadband, according to Lang.

“It’s a really interesting use case,” she said.

Broadband mapping is a difficult task. The Federal Communications Commission’s broadband map is on its third version, undergoing revisions as consumers submit challenges to provider-reported broadband coverage data. The Biden administration’s $42.5 billion broadband expansion program requires states to administer a similar ground-truthing process before allocating any of that cash.

But Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation, urged caution.

“We have to be careful that we might not have enough data,” she said.

In rural parts of the country, data can be sparse and low-quality. Both factors would make machine learning ill-suited to the task of flagging potential inaccuracies, according to Lee.

She urged lawmakers to exercise restraint when using AI for “critical government functions,” like the broadband maps used to determine where federal grant money will go.

The witnesses spoke at a House Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing on using AI to enhance American communication networks.

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