The FCC’s broadband coverage maps have long been maligned by the agency’s own Commissioners, Congress, and others for being inaccurate, and not a reliable indicator of where broadband has been deployed and where connectivity is non-existent. But carriers and the government need to rely on the maps to direct federal broadband funding.
That’s why USTelecom, The Broadband Association, ITTA, The Voice of America’s Broadband Providers, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, and several broadband companies and associations unveiled on Thursday, the creation of a new initiative to better map broadband deployment nationwide and help close the digital divide.
USTelecom President/CEO Jonathan Spalter called the project at yesterday’s announcement in Washington, D.C., “simple, common sense. If our aim is to leave no American behind, we must be capable of pinpointing” where broadband is available and where it is not.
The Broadband Mapping Initiative begins with a pilot program in Virginia and Missouri. The pilot will “test different methods to report availability,” Spalter said.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the maps are based on the agency’s Form 477 data. Under his leadership, the Commission has required carriers to submit improved data, and the agency established an economics office a year ago to provide, “rigorous analysis. Our USF programs are on a fixed budget,” he said. “We want to ensure we target those dollars to those in need.”
In addition to USTelecom, other companies that are part of the effort include: AT&T, CenturyLink, Consolidated, Frontier, ITTA, Riverstreet, TDS, Verizon, Windstream, and WISPA. Some representatives of these companies took part in a panel discussion to explain the pilot.
Frank Simone, Vice President of Federal Regulatory, AT&T, said the current maps indicate connectivity to a census block level. In an urban area that’s about a city block, and some 14 households in a suburban area. But in a rural area, that block can be several miles in length and width. Census block, “addresses don’t give us a serviceable location. The address may be on a mailbox on a road while the actual structure [that needs service] could be miles away,” said Simone.
In the pilot, the carriers will use, “improved longitude and latitude for the structure we have to build out to,” using geocoding software. Knowing exactly how far the build-out is, is critical for the carrier cost-wise, Simone said.
Companies told the FCC they’ve tried various geocoding methods and received different results. “We need a consistent geo-locating process that everybody can build to,” Simone explained.
Diana Eisner, Director of Federal Regulatory, Frontier Communications, said location technology is better than it used to be and artificial intelligence can help carriers estimate structure sizes. That will give the pilot effort “data we didn’t have before.”
The companies will combine all their location and other usable data together, and format it into what they’re calling a “fabric” of locations that need access to broadband. A vendor will clean up the data and assign a unique latitude and longitude to the actual building where broadband service is most likely to be installed. The pilot will also test a crowdsourcing platform so customers can submit information to improve accuracy of the database.
The group believes the pilot will take between four to six months to complete. They will share information with the FCC in hopes it would be adopted on a national basis. Pai said he’s “excited to see how things go.”
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief
March 22, 2019