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Telecom, Cable Groups Push Rival Plans on FCC Broadband Mapping

May 13, 2019, 8:45 AM

Two influential industry groups are vying to get the Federal Communications Commission to adopt competing proposals for how to map broadband coverage across the country.

The agency maintains a national map of fixed broadband deployment, based on internet service providers’ self-reported data. But it considers an area covered if just one building in a census block has broadband access. That potentially excludes large swaths of rural areas without coverage from being eligible for broadband subsidies.

The commission uses the map to help determine how to distribute billions of dollars in subsidies to spur network growth in unserved areas. The FCC is looking at revamping its data collection procedures as Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike raise concerns about the accuracy of the underlying data.

“I want to make certain that if we’re going to spend the amount of money that you have to spend, and that the Department of Agriculture has to spend, that it goes where it needs to go to provide broadband service for all Americans,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) told FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at a May 7 congressional hearing.

A consortium of groups and companies including USTelecom, whose members include AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and smaller broadband providers, is proposing that the FCC create a new nationwide map to track all locations that could be served by broadband. The groups argue that there’s no uniform data showing the precise locations that lack broadband access.

NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, which represents the cable industry including Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications Inc., is urging the agency to collect more granular broadband coverage files from internet service providers, known as ISPs.

Microsoft Corp. and broadband access advocates are urging the FCC to include more data sources, instead of relying solely on unverified ISP data.

ISPs’ "self-reporting has kind of completely failed, given that now we don’t even know where we can even send federal support to build high-speed fiber or any sort of broadband technology,” Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel at technology non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, said.

Accuracy Issues

The FCC’s broadband map relies on self-reported data on a form that ISPs must file with the agency twice a year showing census blocks in which they they offer service. Policymakers and ISPs agree that the data tends to overstate coverage, particularly in rural areas where census blocks are large, and may include locations with broadband and others without it.

“The biggest consequence is when an area is considered served because they lose access to funding,” Christopher Ali, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, said. “That is hugely problematic when one building in a community has quote-unquote broadband, and the rest don’t.”

An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment on when the agency might decide how to revamp its data collection.

“We are now engaging with staff and I expect the staff will come to me with some recommendations on how to make sure that this information is both accurate and more granular,” Pai said at the May 7 hearing.

More than 21 million people lack broadband access at speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) or faster — the FCC’s benchmark for adequate broadband speed, according to the FCC’s draft 2019 broadband deployment report.

Microsoft, which is partnering with rural ISPs to expand rural broadband deployment, argues that the number of unserved Americans could be much higher, because its own data shows that almost 163 million people don’t use the internet at the FCC’s benchmark speed.

The software giant has suggested that the FCC require ISPs to submit data showing where they actually provide broadband instead of where they could serve. It’s also urged the FCC to incorporate subscription data and other third-party data, including its own, to complement the data it receives from ISPs.

Industry Ideas

USTelecom, in collaboration with trade groups ITTA, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, and companies including AT&T and Verizon, has proposed creating a new map, using satellite imagery, digital land parcel data, and other data sources, of all locations in the U.S. that could be served by broadband.

The FCC and carriers could then use the new map to determine what areas still need broadband access. USTelecom is running a pilot project in Virginia and Missouri that it plans to submit to the FCC later this year to showcase its national potential.

“Our mission is to create a consistent national dataset identifying all broadband serviceable locations using a single methodology to provide a harmonized reference point for broadband reporting,” Jonathan Spalter, CEO of USTelecom, said at a recent Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing.

The group says it would cost about $10 million to create the new national map and another $2.5 million to update it annually.

NCTA, meanwhile, is urging the FCC to change its reporting requirements to include data called shapefiles, which can include subscribers’ addresses, geographic coordinates, and other location information, to make the FCC’s broadband map more accurate. NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, which represents small telecom providers, is backing that approach.

“By requiring submitted shapefiles to be based on each provider’s service area, NCTA’s proposal would address the problem of unserved areas being inaccurately treated as served if they are located within served census blocks,” NCTA said in a recent FCC filing.

Both proposals would set up a method for consumers to verify whether the broadband data is accurate.

The groups have butted heads at the agency over the rival plans. NCTA has raised doubts about the broadband consortium’s claim that its nationwide map could be completed in one to two years. It’s also raised concerns about the cost of creating and updating a new map, and potential new filing burdens on ISPs, among other issues.

The consortium “has set forth a lofty vision of how its proposed broadband location fabric will work, but it has glossed over many significant concerns that are raised by its proposal,” NCTA said in a recent FCC filing.

USTelecom has told the agency that the ISPs’ shapefile data may be inaccurate for rural areas. ISPs format their shapefile data in different ways, potentially making it difficult to create an accurate broadband coverage map, USTelecom argues.

“Variability in the latitude and longitude coordinates that providers submit in their shapefiles will cause the lines between served and unserved locations to be misdrawn,” USTelecom said in a recent FCC filing,.

The FCC is reviewing both proposals as a potential path forward, Pai said at the May 7 hearing.

“We’re engaging with all of those stakeholders,” Pai said. “We want to make sure that we do what we can, as soon as we can, to get a more accurate sense of broadband availability.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Reid in Washington at jreid@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com