* Policymakers and experts frequently debate how to provide broadband access to all Americans and how fast the internet connections should be. In order to know how far we must go to reach this goal, we need to have a clear sense of where we are now. Without a clear picture of the current state of connectivity, it’s hard to track our progress toward the important goal of connecting Americans in the farthest and most rural reaches of our country. Much like the basic internet of millions of Americans living beyond the reach of the nearest cell tower, the full scope of America’s broadband coverage has been frustratingly slow to download, offering an incomplete and often inaccurate picture in some places.
In 2009, Congress tasked the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) with compiling a comprehensive map of broadband coverage across the United States. However, congressional funding for the project ran out in 2014, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stepped in to take over the job.
The FCC compiles its data on the location and speed of available broadband from “Form 477” filings submitted by broadband companies across the nation. The FCC requires internet service providers (ISPs) to file these forms twice a year to offer information about where they offer their service, including broadband availability at the census block level. However, census blocks vary widely in size and population. As former NTIA Administrator Michael Gallagher testified in this week’s House Energy and Commerce Committee oversight hearing, the data provided only indicates “whether broadband is available anywhere in a given census block . . ..”
Indeed, the fact that broadband can exist in one corner of a census block but not reach the surrounding community reflects many of the anecdotes we hear from our member companies in rural areas. Our Connected Health Initiative steering committee member University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) knows that while the data may show that people in a certain area have great access to mobile broadband, in reality, they may need to hike up a hill to get a weak signal to download the smallest file.
We need to have accurate and up-to-date broadband data for public and private sector uses. House Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn’s draft NTIA reauthorization bill would put NTIA back in charge of broadband mapping and be a positive step forward. We believe NTIA has attributes different from the FCC’s that give it an important role in accomplishing the task—the NTIA is at home working across government agencies to put together a report from multiple sources, for example. Unlike the FCC, the NTIA reports on how airwaves are used at every frequency, and acts as “landlord” or “property manager” for spectrum licensed to any federal agency.
We hope that Congress can equip the NTIA with the resources that will enable it to regain its important role in broadband mapping. We also hope that the FCC continues its efforts to improve its broadband mapping functions so that the agencies work together to produce an accurate picture of broadband deployment. Americans who lack the benefits of access to broadband, but are listed as fully connected on our best government maps, are tired of being left behind. If these Americans are “connected” on paper only, they’ll remain invisible to government support programs like the universal service fund (USF) which could help them get connected in practice, too. Without accurate broadband mapping, it will be difficult for industry-led initiatives like television white spaces (TVWS) to extend the boundaries of the USF-supported wireline network to accurately target and serve unmapped parts of the country.
To identify and connect more Americans through the use of TVWS, USF, or other means, we must understand where those communities are and what their needs may be. This can only be done with the implementation of more comprehensive, granular, and accurate broadband coverage maps.
*This blog has been updated for accuracy and clarity.