FCC OKs Better Data Collection for Broadband Maps

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The FCC Thursday adopted new rules to improve its broadband location maps, but the agency needs money to make the changes, Chairman Ajit Pai warned. During the vote, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly thanked Congress for its effort to “fix the FCC’s broken mapping system. It never should have come to this. For nearly a decade, almost everyone has acknowledged the form 477 data was insufficient because the data collection was never meant to be used for this purpose, and provided at best a raw snapshot of provider coverage,” said O’Rielly. “Now, the agency starts the process of climbing out of the tremendous whole we have dug.”

“I appreciate that we make changes today, but I regret that it took an act of Congress to force us to do so,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who approved in part and dissented in part. Her dissent concerned the FCC’s plan to use its current broadband location data for the fall Rural Digital Opportunity Fund spectrum auction. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said more accurate maps are especially important as the auction draws near. “As we continue our efforts to bring digital opportunity to every American consumer, we will need more granular and precise maps to know exactly where broadband is, and where it is not. This is especially true for partially served census blocks, areas in which some locations have broadband but others don’t.”

The agency adopted a three-pronged approach to mapping. First, service providers would give the FCC regular information about the areas where they make service available. Second, the Commission would develop a database of all locations where broadband connections might be available, and overlaid upon the coverage information from service providers. Third, the agency would enable individual consumers, along with state, local, and tribal governments and other entities, to contribute to the maps and provide feedback on their accuracy.

“This will allow us to make sure that when a provider says it covers an area, we can be confident that service is actually available,” said Pai. “If the maps indicate the service is not available, we will have additional, actionable data we can use to target assistance and further promote broadband appointment.”

But he warned money is needed to implement the changes. “Congress has yet to provide the funding we need. We need money for maps, dollars before data. If we get it, we will be able to do the hard work of producing broadband availability maps with unprecedented detail.”

The adopted Report and Order builds on the Commission’s approach to broadband mapping adopted in August 2019, which Congress largely endorsed when it enacted the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act. The Order implements key provisions of the Act. That includes requiring fixed and mobile providers to submit standardized broadband availability maps and taking steps to develop a common dataset of homes and businesses where fixed broadband networks could be deployed; service providers’ broadband availability maps will be harmonized with the dataset.

The FCC also seeks comment on proposals to ensure the accuracy of the new broadband coverage maps by creating multiple paths for consumers, along with state, local, and tribal governments and other entities, to provide feedback on the maps directly to the agency.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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