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December 17, 2018 by Tom Cohen

All Eyes are Focused on the National Broadband Map

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The National Broadband Map is more than just some geographic construct. It has real meaning. It tells what areas have sufficient broadband service and what areas do not, which drives Connect America Fund (CAF) support and RUS support. And it tells how many broadband providers are in an area, which drives competition policy. Thus, when the National Broadband Map is deficient, lots of people take notice – from unserved consumers to policymakers to incumbent providers and their competitors. And that’s what’s happening right now – for both fixed and mobile broadband service.

Because the current map deems a census block served by a fixed provider if it makes service available to as little as one location in the area, the FCC has a pending proceeding to determine how it should collect more precise data about the locations served and unserved within a census block. In addition, the FCC is engaged in sorting through the discrepancies between locations CAF recipients are required to serve as set forth by the map and the actual locations that recipients are identifying as they deploy facilities.

As for mobile broadband service, Congress, consumers, and rural mobile providers are all up in arms about the inaccuracies in the 4G coverage maps supplied by providers for the Mobility Fund II challenge process. As a result, the FCC has delayed identifying unserved areas that are to be auctioned and just launched an investigation into the quality of the data that incumbent providers have supplied.

Congress also recently provided funding for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which developed the original map, to gather more granular data about fixed and mobile broadband service using existing sources.

These steps are important to ensuring all Americans have access to fixed and mobile broadband service, but there are real challenges to improving the data. For fixed service, there is no database containing all housing units in the US by geocoded address. In other words, we do not know the “denominator” in determining the percentage of homes in each location that are not served. While many have called for the government to develop such a database, it would take many years and the costs will run into the many tens of millions. Additionally, because the housing market is dynamic, with many units being built and destroyed each year, providers will continuously have to go to the time and expense of regularly updating their databases. And, for mobile service, determining “quality” coverage is not so easy. Just think of all the times you looked at your smartphone to see how many “bars” you have.  

The other day FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel proposed to solve the problem by having greater coordination among government agencies, placing a premium on accuracy, and being creative in developing new methods to collect data. Given the importance of the National Broadband Map, we are bound to hear more from everyone about what needs to be done. So, if you have any thoughts, now is the time to get engaged.

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