FCC Approves New Broadband Data Collection Framework

The FCC has approved the broad strokes of its new Digital Opportunity Data Collection broadband data collection regime, which is intended to collect precise and granular data on broadband availability.

That came at its virtual July public meeting (actually a Microsoft Teams meeting, as FCC chairman Ajit Pai pointed out).

The FCC has been under pressure to get better data on where broadband is and isn't given that it hands out billions of dollars in broadband deployment subsidies based on that information and given that universal broadband is even more important during a pandemic when much of commerce and life is online.

Pai has said that the digital divide can't be closed until the FCC can get that better data and that better maps will also be needed to give the public confidence that the divide is being closed. 

Related: House Republicans Push for Broadband Mapping Bucks

The FCC voted on both the report and order laying out the framework for collecting and verifying data so it can build better maps. It also voted on a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that seeks comment on additional steps for verifying those maps and helping service providers provide better data. It also seeks comment on a process for allowing consumers to challenge the maps how the FCC should fully implement the Broadband Data Act.

That was Congress' legislative mandate to the FCC to do what it had already signaled it was doing, which is to come up with better maps.

One change to the order praised by commissioner Brendan Carr was the move of what Carr said would be the requirement to provide over a dozen sets of infrastructure data from the order to a further notice, meaning the FCC is seeking comment on that, not mandating it.

"[F]ixing the Commission’s maps, which are woefully inadequate for determining broadband coverage and service, remains a critical priority for the Commission," FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly said. "Today, we restart the process of climbing out of the tremendous hole we’ve dug.... "I’m hopeful that we are turning the corner on the Commission’s inaccurate mapping problems, and that the products of these efforts will allow us to make better decisions on how best to bring service to those remaining unserved Americans."

"Congress finally told us to clean up our act in the Broadband DATA Act, so that is what we do here," said commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "We implement this new law—and we mostly get it right… But there is one thing we surely get wrong. We are going to gather all of this precise data about where broadband is and is not, but we are not going to use any of it this fall when we distribute $16 billion in funding for improved broadband service across the country. In fact, the way this works is that less than one week before the election the FCC will distribute 80% of these broadband funds for the next decade. If you think that sounds irresponsible, you’re right.”

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks agreed that the FCC should not rush money out before it got data in.

Pai pointed out that Congress still needs to approve the funding for the FCC to be able to implement the Broadband Data Act. "We need money before maps," dollars before data."

“Timely, relevant and accurate broadband maps are essential to identifying policies that can help deliver mobile broadband service to Americans in communities across the country, especially in rural areas," said CTIA VP of regulatory affairs Matt Gerst. "We support the FCC’s adoption of the Broadband DATA Act’s provisions and look forward to quickly completing this very important proceeding.”

“Accurate broadband availability maps are foundational for efforts to close the digital divide. A detailed account of where broadband internet is available today would ensure the best use of taxpayer dollars to deploy high-speed internet infrastructure everywhere," said the Internet Innovation Alliance. "The current maps would leave many American households unconnected. With the broadband maps of today, all households in a given census block are assumed to have broadband access if even one household in the census block has broadband access."

“We appreciate the Commission’s ongoing efforts to improve its broadband data collection requirements to more closely reflect areas able to be served by broadband providers," said NCTA-The Internet & Television Association. "Specifically, the transition to a reporting mechanism based on polygon shapefiles, or electronic depictions of broadband providers’ service areas, will lead to more accurate maps of broadband availability throughout the country.”

“Fifteen months ago USTelecom set out to prove we could leverage data and technology to cost-efficiently transform America’s broadband maps – and ultimately increase connectivity in rural America," said USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter. "That vision is today a reality, and we are proud to have played our part in helping the FCC shape this game-changing mapping plan. Especially at a time when our country is relying on its communications infrastructure more than ever, modernizing our maps could not be more essential and smart policy. Next up: Congress must fully fund this data-driven mapping project so that future federal broadband spending will be based on the most accurate and granular map available.”

“We welcome today’s action by the FCC to implement the Broadband DATA Act to create more accurate broadband maps," said AT&T EVP Joan Marsh. "Creating more granular and detailed broadband maps sets an important foundation to close the broadband gap. We look forward to continuing to work with the Commission to make the new broadband map a reality so that more Americans have access to high-speed internet.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.