The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its chairman, Ajit Pai, have been on a mission. Their goal is to expand internet access to places severely lacking it — most notably, rural areas.
The first step toward that goal, which just passed the House last week, is changing the way the U.S. maps its coverage.
The Broadband DATA Act orders the FCC to “change the way broadband data is collected, verified, and reported.”
Currently, mapping is based on U.S. Census blocks. The way the coverage analysis is done, a block is counted as “covered” if one household in that block has 25 Mbps internet service or higher. This can, and does, create huge gaps in who’s considered “covered” by the maps and who actually has access to basic internet connection.
This process is called Form 477 which uses “wired and wireless local telephone services” to map coverage.
The new model is a granular method that paints a more precise broadband service availability picture. The vehicle created to accomplish this is the Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric — a system that will utilize geocoding (turning addresses into latitudinal/longitudinal locations) to map coverage.
The bill establishes 5 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads as the minimum household standard.
Under the law, the FCC may contract out the creation and maintenance of the mapping system to a private firm(s) for no longer than five years — but the bidding process must be competitive, open, and transparent.
Once implemented, the granular map must be updated — at a minimum — every six months. Those maps and the corresponding data will be, to “appropriate levels,” publicly available.
The legislation also institutes a requirement for a robust input system to allow the public a say in the FCC’s rules and procedures for the endeavor — and even permits a process for crowdsourcing of the data collection.
Other provisions create special assistance for Indian tribes and small service providers, which is defined as 100,000 internet connections or fewer.
The commission must report annually the progress of the program.
Supporters of this new mapping effort maintain it will improve the fund-awarding process when providers place their bids on broadband infrastructure expansion — making it more efficient and precise.
One organization that has long focused on the broadband data-improvement is Connected Nation.
Jessica Denson, the director of communications for Connected Nation, told The Texan, “We’re really happy to see the shift in priority towards improving our broadband data collection.”
Denson specifically pointed to the Indian reservation, small provider, and public input provisions as improvements upon the current system.
The other aspect of the bill Denson praised was the uniformity it institutes. “Not everyone collects or submits the coverage data in the same way, which is part of the accuracy problem,” she stated.
“They’re doing a lot of good, positive things here. And at the end of the day, you cannot begin to ensure everyone has access without having accurate maps.”
Many rural areas lack significant internet access because the costs required to expand infrastructure often far outweigh the potential revenue from clientele.
This is where the FCC comes in, shouldering portions of that cost burden. It is all part of a broader effort to treat the internet as a public utility like electricity was in the 1930s without the regulatory fears that came with so-called “Net Neutrality.”
Earlier this year, the FCC announced a $20 billion plan to expand internet access. But to move forward with the endeavor, more precise coverage mapping must be completed — and Congress believes the Broadband DATA Act will do just that.
Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.