House Looks at Broadband Mapping, Definitions

It is broadband deployment week on Capitol Hill. Following a Senate hearing Tuesday on the Universal Service Fund broadband deployment subsidies that included a focus on accurate FCC broadband coverage data or the lack of it, the House Communications Subcommittee drilled down on coverage mapping and definitions in a hearing June 21.

Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) also made some news, saying the subcommittee was looking to hold an FCC oversight hearing next month. 

Before launching into the meat of the meeting, Blackburn took a moment to send best wishes to committee member Steve Scalise, recovering in the hospital from his wounds in last week's shooting, as well as the rest of those injured in the attack.

The hearing focused on updating the National Broadband Map, which has not happened since June 2014, "if you can believe that," she added, as well as what the definition of access to broadband should be, high-speed or basic, unserved or underserved. 

Blackburn said the digital divide continues to plague rural America, echoing the consensus at the Senate hearing a day before, but also said the government needs to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money by having accurate data so that areas with the greatest need are targeted "by both public and private investment."

The hearing was divided into discussions about defining high-speed broadband and accurately mapping where it is.

The FCC defined high-speed as 25 Mbps downstream in 2015, she pointed out. She called that a "dramatic shift" from the previous 4 Mbps. The Wheeler FCC called that an aspirational definition for what would soon be table stakes for delivering the amount of data, particularly video, consumers were hungering for.

But raising that definition also reduced the number of folks defined as getting high-speed broadband, Blackburn pointed out. But she said a variety of speeds serve a variety of purposes and, while there is increasing demand for higher speeds, "we should examine whether a 'totality of circumstances' test might be more appropriate for defining broadband connectivity."

She said accurate definitions and mapping data is imperative so that "hardworking taxpayer money" goes to areas that most need it.

On the other side, ranking member Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said he and Blackburn agreed broadband was critical for the nation and the economy, and the country was still struggling to connect unserved and underserved members of the community.

He said that while Universal Service funding was making a dent, more needed to be done. 

Doyle and other Democrats have offered up a bill to invest $40 billion more in broadband infrastructure—Blackburn had argued that the billions already spent in the Obama Administration via the BTOP and RUS programs had mostly been money spent with little return.

Doyle said that $40 billion could "significantly close" the broadband deployment gap and deliver high-speed service to 98% of the country.

ISPs have warned that whatever government money is put into deployment, it should not be in overbuilding existing plant. 

Doyle also urged the chairman to hold an oversight hearing on the new FCC. A planned March 8 hearing was postponed but has yet to be rescheduled, he pointed out.

He cited the almost 5 million network neutrality comments the FCC has received to suggest it was time for the commissioners to come before the committee to "address the public's concerns." 

Pai did speak briefly about the issue at a Senate Appropriations Committee budget hearing this week, where the issue of closing the rural digital divide was also a topic of conversation. Doyle said he hoped an oversight hearing could be arranged ASAP. Blackburn said they had been working with the commissioners’ offices and were looking to schedule the hearing sometime in July. 

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) said that while she appreciated the informational hearing, she would rather it have been a legislative hearing on various bills that have been offered up related to broadband deployment and measurement.

(Photo via Rock1997Image taken on Jan. 18, 2017 and used per Creative Commons 2.0 license. The photo was cropped to fit 3x4 aspect ratio.)

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.