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Broadband Mapping & Data

Nation’s Most Accurate Broadband Map Will Come from FCC Challenge Process: NTCA

‘Using the right information at the right time, we’re going to get to a better place.’

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Screenshot of Michael Romano, executive VP for NTCA.

WASHINGTON, September 22, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission’s mechanism for challenging the agency’s mapping data will likely enable the creation of the nation’s most accurate broadband map to date, said Michael Romano, executive vice president for rural broadband trade association NTCA.

“The fact that we had all these funding mechanisms coming at the same time when they were required to use the maps, required in some ways the plane to be built as it was being flown,” said Romano at a Fiber Broadband Association web event Wednesday.

“But as long as folks are faithful about using discipline, about using the right information at the right time, we’re going to get to a better place,” he added.

The FCC’s “fabric” – a location-level dataset that shows where connectivity is and is lacking – is not yet public, although the agency provided a preliminary version to state and local governments, providers, and other entities. These entities can issue challenges to the fabric – which started on September 12 – which the FCC said will be accepted on a rolling basis. The FCC says it expects to release its new maps in November.

Romano said he recognized the difficulties presented by the FCC’s Congress-mandated approach, including, he said, extended timetables, opaque data-gathering processes, and outright errors. However, he said, ongoing challenges – issued from a multitude of stakeholders – will over time be an effective corrective to the inevitable inaccuracies of the FCC’s initial map.

States also have their own challenge processes, said Romano, which will provide another opportunity to correct mistakes on the FCC’s map. “The states are going to be the final sanity check on should we really be giving money in these areas,” he said.

Criticisms of the FCC’s mapping methods

Many industry players have recently criticized the FCC’s mapping process. Jonathan Chambers, partner at telecom Conexon, previously stated that the fabric’s data is highly inaccurate, and has criticized the FCC and its partner CostQuest’s alleged secrecy during the fabric-making process.  

In recent months, internet service providers were required to report to the FCC all serviceable locations covered by their networks, reports that will be cross referenced with the fabric’s data.

A survey of ISPs conducted by Rick Yuzzi, marketing VP for Zcorum, pointed to the same conclusion, and more than fifty percent of respondents said their biggest challenge in the reporting process was either matching location addresses with the fabric’s dataset or outright FCC error.

Scott Wallsten, president and senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, wrote this summer that Congress made a relatively high amount of error inevitable by requiring granular location-level mapping in the Broadband DATA Act – a position he reiterated at Wednesday’s Broadband Breakfast Live Online event Wednesday.

Wallsten, like Romano, however, argued that the challenge process will eventually correct many of the errors in the current fabric.

Broadband Mapping & Data

State Broadband Maps Show Significantly Fewer Served Locations than Does FCC’s Map

There is a ‘massive difference’ between federal Form 477 data and state maps in Georgia and North Carolina

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Screenshot of Eric McRae of the Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia, at a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event earlier this year

WASHINGTON, September 30, 2022 – State broadband maps from North Carolina and Georgia show significantly fewer served locations than do the Federal Communications Commission’s existing data, said a panel at a Fiber Broadband Association web event Wednesday.

For us there is “a massive difference” between Form 477 data and Georgia’s data, said Eric McRae associate director of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. McRae said the number of Georgians the FCC identifies as unserved is “miniscule,” while the state’s estimate is between 1 and 1.2 million unserved.

North Carolina also found the federal data lacking: “There are thousands of people that are technically in FCC considered served blocks that typed in their address and said they had no access or came in with 1 megabit or horrible speeds,” said Ray Zeisz, senior director of the Technology Infrastructure Lab at North Carolina State University’s Friday Institute. “We verified, certainly, that the data was overstated.”

With the two state-mapping leaders, J. Randolph Luening, founder and CEO of Signals Analytics, presented the findings of his recent report, which compares data from Georgia and North Carolina’s maps to the FCC’s Form 477 data.

Luening’s report outlines the contrasting methods employed by North Carolina and Georgia. North Carolina collected – and published – the results of 109,000 speed tests, measuring download and upload speeds, latency, and jitter. The Tar Heel State also gathered information on technology type, service provider, and other relevant factors.

Georgia’s process is more like the FCC’s current map-making process: It created a fabric dataset and solicited coverage data from providers on an iterative basis. The Peach State published its data in block-by-block form.

Unlike the maps generated from Form 477 data, Georgia’s maps show the percentage of served locations in each census block. “We’ve been able to get a very accurate count of the number of unserved locations that we have in the state of Georgia,” McRae said.

Imprecisions and inaccuracies in Form 477 data were largely responsible for the inception of the FCC’s current location-by-location mapping project. The Commission is still constructing this map and will accept challenges to the accuracy of its fabric dataset on a rolling basis. The map will be used to apportion among the states $42.45 billion from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program.

McRae and Zeisz agreed a state must launch its own mapping initiative to check the accuracy of federal maps and ensure receipt of its fair share of BEAD funding.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

FCC Broadband Data Task Force Emphasizes Need for Precision in Mapping Challenges

Officials on the panel said there was significant confusion among challengers regarding categories of challenges.

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FCC photo of Sean Spivey, senior counsel and chief of staff for the FCC's Broadband Data Task Force and host of Wednesday's webinar

WASHINGTON, September 28, 2022 – Challenges that do not strictly adhere to the Federal Communications Commission’s fabric-challenge guidelines will be thrown out, FCC broadband mapping officials warned in a webinar Wednesday.

The FCC’s fabric, a dataset of buildings that are or could be reached by fixed broadband service, will be the basis for the agency’s new national broadband map and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s division among the states of $42.45 billion from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program.

Although the fabric’s data is not publicly available due to licensing agreements with contractor CostQuest, the FCC released a preliminary version to state governments, service providers, and other stakeholders. Those individuals may challenge the data contained in the fabric. The FCC and other experts have said the challenge process is indispensable to the accuracy of the agency’s forthcoming broadband map.

The panel of individuals on the webinar from the FCC’s Broadband Data Task Force  identified seven challenge categories. The panel included Senior Counsel Sean Spivey, Senior Implementation Officer Chelsea Fallon, and officials John Emmett and Steven Rosenberg.

Each of the seven challenge pertains to a specific type of data correction. These include adding a serviceable location to the fabric, correcting an incorrect or missing address, or moving the marked serviceable location to another structure on the same parcel of land.

Officials on the panel said there is significant confusion among challengers regarding these categories. The panel highlighted a case in which the challenger mistakenly tried to add a new serviceable location instead of altering a listed address.

The panel also discouraged challengers from adding multiple serviceable locations to a single building. An apartment complex, for instance, is a single location, but can be marked as containing several sub-units. Even a building with multiple owners or addresses – like some duplexes – is considered a single serviceable location. Challenges to change the number of units or addresses associated with a location should not be confused with a challenge to add a location, the panel said.

To successfully add a serviceable location, a challenger must accurately mark the appropriate building to which it corresponds. Many challengers, however, marked proposed locations far from any building, often in the middle of a street.

The panel recommended the use of third-party software by challengers to ensure that their challenges are completed properly.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Kirsten Compitello: The Need for a Digital Equity Focus on Broadband Mapping

Incorporating equitable processes and outcomes from the start is crucial to avoid perpetuating continued inequalities.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Kirsten Compitello, National Broadband Digital Equity Director at Michael Baker International

Broadband for all is in the spotlight right now, and closing the digital divide is recognized as a national priority. The divide goes far beyond access and touches issues of costs, ownership, culture, awareness, skills, and more. As we enter into a period of major statewide planning and deployment efforts, incorporating equitable processes and outcomes from the start is crucial to avoid perpetuating continued inequalities in access, adoption, and literacy.

Digital equity is not just a value statement: it’s a commitment to inclusive and equitable decision making at every stage of broadband deployment, from planning to service delivery.

Ensuring equitable representation at the table

Embedding digital equity analysis into mapping is especially critical at this moment in time as we prepare for historic broadband funding. This funding is an opportunity to rebalance systemic patterns of exclusion and ensure rapidly deployed planning and implementation funds are fairly dispersed.

The Digital Equity Act provides $2.75 billion to establish three grant programs that promote digital equity and inclusion, including the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program, a $60 million grant program for states and territories to develop digital equity plans. In creating these Statewide Digital Equity Plans, extensive outreach to and collaboration with underserved, unserved and historically marginalized populations will prove critical. These discussions will be much more informative and effective in guiding successful policies, programs and projects if they are rooted in clear understanding of social, economic and environmental patterns alongside broadband access maps.

Documenting the effects of digital exclusion

Access is not an equal term: reducing it simply to speed of service available neglects the social and economic complexities that determine how and where users are affected by a lack of broadband. In short, mapping where the infrastructure exists only tells part of the story. Data analysis needs to layer in demographic and economic information in order to reveal patterns of exclusion and identify root causes.

To better understand community impacts, our team at Michael Baker developed data visualization tools such as a Digital Equity Atlas which takes the next step toward analyzing how broadband gaps disproportionately impact segments of the population. The methodology looks at Title VI and Environmental Justice data to reveal where poor connectivity correlates to social factors including low income, senior populations, English as a Second Language, households without a vehicle and more. As an example, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission leveraged the Digital Equity Atlas to prioritize new broadband expansion projects that stand to benefit the greatest number of at-risk or marginalized households. These households should not be last in line to see broadband investment finally bringing greater connectivity and opportunities to their doorsteps.

Fulfilling Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program requirements

Federal reporting requirements for upcoming Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act funding call for a proven and documented understanding and analysis of digital equity needs, from planning to projects in the ground.

The IIJA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program provides $42.45 billion to expand broadband access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs across the country. Statewide Five-Year Action Plans, funded through this program, will require government agencies and their partners to take an integrated digital equity approach.

From planning through the ensuing reporting requirements, establishing digital equity strategies and a clear rubric for measuring success in achieving digital equity goals is a must for agencies. These entities must demonstrate how projects funded through BEAD improve digital equity. A strong data-driven baseline – such as the Digital Equity Atlas – will be a necessary starting point for agencies to track and monitor the effect of each new deployment on surrounding households. These data-driven metrics will also be a win for state and local governments to tell the story of their successes with clear data to back it up.

Setting a goal for sustainable inclusivity

As the consumption of internet content continues to rise and as broadband for all projects bring connectivity to the unserved, baseline expectations for broadband service and speed will only continue to grow. If we aren’t careful, new categories of have-nots will emerge: for example, those who pay high fees for minimum speeds versus those with lower fees for premier plans and Gig speeds. The currently unserved will gain access to service, but many will continue to struggle with basic internet skills, navigating through complex terms of service, or even simply finding time to schedule installation without missing a day of work.

To create a truly equitable society, everyone – no matter age, ability, location or status – needs access to affordable and reliable broadband; internet-connected devices; education on digital technology and best use practices; tech support and online resources that help users participate, collaborate and work independently.

By grounding our planning in equitable practices from the very first step, we can help to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from Internet for All.

Kirsten Compitello, AICP, is the National Broadband Digital Equity Director at Michael Baker International. 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.

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