Better Broadband Mapping Needs Granularity, Shapefiles, Industry Leaders Tell Hill

Juggling five pieces of proposed legislation for improving the Federal Communications Commission's broadband mapping process, the House Communications and Technology subcommittee on Wednesday grilled representatives of telecommunications and public interest organizations - seeking their views about ways to increase the accuracy of the FCC's mapping reports. The lengthy hearing - labeled "Legislating to Connect America: Improving the Nation's Broadband Maps," delved into new ways to identify unserved pockets within traditional survey tracts in order to reduce the "digital divide." The subcommittee also heard ideas about alternative research tools to improve the FCC's maps such as crowdsourcing of local information.

Several Congressmen cited the need for more precise data in order to allocate federal funding for broadband expansion into underserved areas as well as to help federal agencies develop their service delivery projects (such as telehealth and distance learning) via broadband networks.

FCC chair Ajit Pai has acknowledged the need for better tools to collect data about broadband deployment and to improve the current Form 477 reporting process.

The Senate Commerce Committee has unanimously passed the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, a bill that would try to improve the data the government uses to establish broadband availability maps.

At Wednesday's House hearings, several witnesses focused on the "Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act" (H.R. 4229), a bipartisan bill that would require the FCC to adopt rules that would balance public access to data "with adequate protections for privacy and for confidential or competitively sensitive information."

In his opening remarks, Communications Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) criticized the FCC's current mapping process, citing "the lack of clear data [which] has been a sore spot for many of us on the Committee." Doyle acknowledged that the FCC and industry stakeholders "have made significant strides to improve the quality of these maps," but he voiced continuing concern about what's missing.

"Accurate maps of who does and who doesn't have access to broadband are a critical first step toward closing the digital divide," Doyle said. "We can't hope to solve this problem if we don't know the scope of the problem and where to put our resources."

Doyle - like many of the subsequent witnesses - cited the value of crowdsourced data to supplement industry reporting plus the need for a "standardized methodology"used by providers. He also pointed out that several of the proposed bills include suggestions for setting up a new office within the FCC to coordinate mapping efforts.

Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), the subcommittee's ranking Republican, said, "Extending the reach of broadband in rural America is critical in making sure everyone can participate in the digital economy." Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) stressed that the legislation should focus on "how to leverage data" so that the maps are useful to federal agencies seeking to deliver services via broadband networks.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), chair of the parent Energy and Commerce Committee, in prepared opening remarks, cited the "huge problem" of the current mapping and data collection process, but complimented the "bipartisan agreement on this Subcommittee that the FCC’s bad maps need to be fixed."

"Broadband mapping is a central component in Congress's review of broadband deployment, spectrum policy [and] supply chain security," Pallone said. "Without good maps, we cannot correctly determine how we should target funding for broadband access and adoption in rural and urban areas. Without good maps, we don’t have enough detail to assess competition or review mergers."

"It is not an exaggeration to say this FCC’s terrible broadband data is its Achilles heel," Pallone added with a partisan dig. He cited research by CostQuest Associates (one of the witnesses at the Wednesday hearing) which found that up to 38 of households in the study area "might be unserved, but the FCC may count them as served."

Granularity, Shapefiles Are Vital to Improved Mapping, NTCA, NCTA Contend

"Better broadband maps can play a key role in making sure that we both build broadband where it is lacking and sustain broadband where it exists today," said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. She called the FCC's current maps "frustratingly inconsistent and unreliable" with many "false positives" that identify areas as "served" if only a few individual sites within a large region actually have broadband access.

"The most significant problem we have is granularity," Bloomfield said. "We should continue to move forward for a uniform data set to identify which places are served and which are not."

She also noted that "granularity and accuracy are not the same thing." Bloomfield recommended that "crowdsourcing" is a smart way to off-set carriers' self-reported "front-end" measurements with a "back-end" (user-reported) validation.

"Crowdsourcing can provide useful information in identifying problems in reported coverage, but it must be implemented thoughtfully to avoid overwhelming the system for the Commission and providers alike," she added.

James Assey, executive VP of NCTA - The Internet and Television Association, expanded on Bloomfield's support of increased granularity in the FCC reports. He cited "granular representations of network coverage through the use of polygon 'shapefiles' – electronic coverage maps that represent the areas where [carriers] make service available."

"Shapefile reporting and crowdsourcing data will create a faster, more efficient and more accurate picture of broadband availability than ever available before," he testified.

Assey also acknowledged that shapefiles will help the FCC in its continuing effort "to refine the Form 477 data collection to obtain better information to meet changing policy goals." And he warned that the "Location Fabric Tool" (supported by USTelecom), raises "thorny issues" about adopting new tools for data measurement. He also said that, "before awarding scarce broadband deployment subsidies based on the map, there should be a means of challenging a provider’s submission of deployment data, an opportunity for the provider to respond to the challenge, and a forum for resolution by the FCC." Assey, in his prepared statement, cited concerns that there should be a "means of ensuring that frivolous complaints are weeded out, so that providers are not flooded with household-by-household complaints each time they submit data."

Where Wireless Fits

Speaking on behalf of the wireless industry, United States Cellular Corp.'s Grant Spellmeyer complained that the FCC's maps "are not good enough to conduct a [wireless] auction" and urged Congress to adopt H.R. 4229 (The Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act) - one of the five pending pieces of legislation - "quickly so we can get on with the task at hand." Spellmeyer, US Cellular's VP of federal affairs and public policy, emphasized that, "Although this will help fix the maps, we have a larger task remaining before us…that of filling in the maps."

He also introduced the issue of 5G wireless services, acknowledging the challenge of rural deployment. Spellmeyer told the subcommittee that, "accomplishing this goal [of rural 5G delivery] will not be possible without a robust universal service fund mechanism that stands on a strong knowledge base – an accurate broadband map."

Jonathan Spalter, president/CEO of USTelecom, focused on the "broadband serviceable location fabric" (called "the Fabric") that his association supported during a research project in Missouri and Virginia. Spalter said the Fabric "can underpin a contemporary, tailored and updateable broadband map that can serve as the foundation for all future broadband spending decisions that pinpoint the unserved." He suggested that the FCC could use the Fabric as a "foundational mapping tool ... as it undertakes a rulemaking to develop the next phase of Universal Service Fund support, called the Rural Digital Opportunities Fund (RDOF)."

"Our nation lacks a comprehensive map indicating precisely where high-speed broadband service is available and, most importantly, where it is not," Spalter said. "If our aim is to leave no American behind, then the tools and instruments we use—in both the public and private sector—must be capable of accurately pinpointing where we need to focus our efforts."

James Stegeman, president of CostQuest Associates, the firm that ran the Fabric project, told the subcommittee that based on the pilot experience in Missouri and Virginia, it would take about five to eight months to ramp up a nationwide project to assess granular broadband availability using tools such as polygons, tax information and geospatial processes. He estimated that a nationwide study could be completed in 10 to 15 months at a cost of $8.5 to $11 million.

Dana Floberg, policy manager of public interest organization Free Press and Free Press Action Fund, focused much of her testimony on the FCC's Form 477. She said that its "data is not as inaccurate as many fear, but it could still be improved."

In particular she noted that there are "opportunities to improve the granularity and accuracy of the Commission’s Form 477 data." She cited the CostQuest Associate's study about large pockets of unserved customers within areas where broadband is allegedly deployed.

"The digital divide extends far beyond the underserved communities," she said. "People may live in areas that are served by broadband, but they cannot afford to subscribe."

Floberg also chastized carriers for their competitive attitudes, including keeping their data private.

"Deployment maps should not be confidential," she added.

Why This Matters

Congress wants the FCC to improve its process for monitoring broadband deployment, which seems to match FCC Chair Ajit Pai's commitment to reducing the digital divide. Yet the avalanche of proposed legislation - despite bipartisan rhetoric - faces a complicated outlook. Here are the five current bills in the House hopper.

H.R. 2643, the "Broadband Mapping After Public Scrutiny Act of 2019"

H.R. 3162, the "Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2019"

H.R. 4128, the "Map Improvement Act of 2019"

H.R. 4229, the "Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act"

H.R. 4227, the "Mapping Accuracy Promotion Services Act"

Gary Arlen

Contributor Gary Arlen is known for his insights into the convergence of media, telecom, content and technology. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the longtime “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports. He writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs. Gary has taught media-focused courses on the adjunct faculties at George Mason University and American University and has guest-lectured at MIT, Harvard, UCLA, University of Southern California and Northwestern University and at countless media, marketing and technology industry events. As President of Arlen Communications LLC, he has provided analyses about the development of applications and services for entertainment, marketing and e-commerce.