Updating FCC Broadband Coverage Map Critical to Rural Expansion


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The FCC’s National Broadband Map is outdated and updating it is key to any infrastructure package hoping to boost the nation’s high speed internet. Several witnesses speaking at a House Communications Subcommittee hearing Wednesday suggested the FCC continue to concentrate on ensuring areas that don’t have broadband at all are targeted by public and private investment rather than upgrading areas that do have some broadband service.

Subcommittee Chair Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and full House Commerce Committee Chair Greg Walden (R-OR) said they intend to learn from past mistakes and get the map right first before distributing any federal funds. Walden in particular cited the Rural Utilities Service and 2009 Recovery Act, saying a Government Accountability Office investigator testified $3 billion was spent and “we don’t know what became of it.” Walden said: “That’s because the money went out before the maps were drawn.”

To be fair, the FCC inherited the map from NTIA, which had authority over what are really several maps until its funding for the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program ran out in June 2014; then, that authority was transferred to the Commission.

Former deputy chief of the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau Carol Mattey, who’s now a consultant, told lawmakers it would be easier to improve the FCC’s current Form 477 coverage data required from ISPs than start over. Several witnesses, including mapping nonprofit Connected Nation VP Brent Legg said, one issue with the current data is “if one household in a [census] block is served the entire block is considered served” and that’s a problem in rural areas where blocks are large. Mattey disagreed, saying not every census block needs to be included in the coverage maps because most of the blocks are in urban areas.

Wireless network mapping specialist Mosaik Solutions President/CEO Bryan Darr said the FCC’s current maps, which were last updated in September 2016 using data from December 2015 include “no coverage data for RF conditions.” There is also no standard for what level of service is considered broadband, according to Darr, noting that “You may well be able to get a text message at the edge of a service area but it’s not enough [speed] to download a large image. Trying to use RF propagation maps to determine where you will get service is an inexact science.”

He demonstrated how coverage maps can be improved. This map “shows how overlaying coverage, tower assets and fiber routes can speed the site acquisition process to locate suitable tower or rooftop assets for network expansion. Identifying existing structures for infrastructure deployment can avoid much of the opposition to new tower sitings,” he testified.

Rather than focusing on providing ever-increasing speeds, policymakers must face the “price and coverage problem,” said Doug Brake, Senior Telecommunications Policy Analyst, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit think tank. “How much coverage can you get and for what price?”

June 22, 2017     

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