Two months after the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) State Broadband Initiative (SBI) issued a notice for public comment stating it would seek more granular information for its broadband map than the Federal Communications Commission's version of the offering, the FCC decommissioned the NTIA's National Broadband Map and its APIs.
That map, available since 2011 to anybody interested in the nation's broadband coverage, was now useless since it has not been updated in several years, wrote Rich Mansfield, associate CIO in the Office of the Managing Director at the FCC, in a blog last month. Click on the NTIA broadband map link and you end up at Mansfield's blog.
"But the mapping platform has become dated, as has the coverage data, which was collected through... NTIA's SBI; the last published SBI data set was current as of June 30, 2014," he continued. "Based on the age of the data, and the underlying technology, the National Broadband Map and its Application Program Interface (API), will be decommissioned on December 21, 2018."
Instead, interested parties now should rely solely on the Fixed Broadband Deployment map -- updated in February 2018 with data collected by the FCC from carriers using FCC Form 477, Mansfield wrote.
Broadband World News got no response to requests for comment due to the government shutdown.
There are at least two concerns with reliance on this map, however. First, as the Congressional Research Service describes in its recently released report, "Broadband Internet Access and the Digital Divide: Federal Assistance Programs," organizations have concerns about the FCC's data-collection process with Form 477. That's because operators can include "census blocks" as receiving broadband coverage, even if only one home in that area can -- or probably can -- actually connect to the FCC-approved rate of 25Mbit/s upstream, 10Mbit/s downstream.
"A census block is considered served if there is broadband service (or the strong potential of broadband service) to one or more locations," the CRS wrote on page two. "This is especially problematic in rural areas, which have large census blocks and may be considered served if, for example, a single neighborhood in that large census block has broadband service."
Secondly, given the FCC's precedent in eliminating cable operators' need to stop using Form 325 (a yearly gathering of data including number of subscribers and system-wide capacity for those solutions that supported more than 20,000 subscribers), it's not outside the realm of possibility -- or even "strong potential," perhaps -- that the agency will loosen other data collection for providers. With the amount of taxpayer dollars going toward providing rural and under-served regions with much-needed connectivity, it's vital that lawmakers get an accurate assessment of who needs what and where they need it. Census blocks are inaccurate and inadequate. (See FCC No Longer Requires Cable Data Under Oath.)
Collaborate, not decommission
The FCC's semi-annual collection of broadband data is important, with Form 477 providing valuable insight over the years, wrote Brian Scarpelli, Senior Global Policy Counsel at ACT - The App Association, during the NTIA's request for comment period about the broadband map.
"Still, Form 477 remains a work in progress. While the FCC requires reporting data that
includes census blocks where they have deployed broadband, the form makes no
distinction between a census block that enjoys full coverage and a census block that
enjoys partial coverage," he said.
"Thus, Form 477 makes it difficult to perform a diagnostic on
broadband connectivity to discern how many consumers are with or without broadband
in a particular census block," he wrote. "Moreover, Form 477 would garner more actionable information if ISPs
report on areas they are having difficulty deploying infrastructure and the reasons why
such areas pose an issue."
For its part, giant tractor manufacturer Deere & Co. called for an end to census blocks and greater inclusion of mobile and fixed-wireless access broadband to ensure all areas of the country are covered -- especially rural, namely agricultural, regions.
"Deere agrees with NTIA that the Form 477 deployment data collected by the FCC,
presently the only source of data depicting nationwide broadband availability, does not
adequately or accurately capture the state of high-speed broadband deployment in rural areas," wrote Mark Lewellen, manager of Spectrum Advocacy at Intelligent Solutions Group (ISG) of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP for Deere & Co. "Form 477 data, self-reported semi-annually to the FCC by voice and broadband telecommunications carriers, reports services provided to residential populations as measured byCensus Blocks. Thus, in rural areas, the Census Block reporting method is flawed because it can substantially overstate the extent of actual broadband service coverage. Given the very limited sources of broadband availability data, this reporting significantly distorts funding and other broadband deployment policies in a way that overlooks the needs of rural areas.
Similarly, reporting programs that measure adoption and usage of households also skews data to reflect deployment status of residential population centers ignoring the important and growing demand for high-speed broadband by rural business and other users, large and small."
Several respondents recommended a partnership between the two government agencies. The FCC and NTIA also should seek, find and use data from other organizations, public and private, several letter-writers proposed.
There is no way to create a complete and accurate map of broadband coverage (and lack, thereof) without first knowing where all US households were located, said the American Cable Association. The United States Postal Service could undertake some of that task in conjunction with NTIA and after public comment, ACA proposed.
In addition, Deere recommended the broadband map should extend beyond households into "cropland" and "ranchland" coverage, too. Given the fast-growing use of Internet of Things, plus technological advances such as 5G, fixed-wireless access and new broadband technologies that complement today's solutions, the ability to deploy high-speed, low-latency connectivity across uninhabited areas will become easier and more cost-effective and it's vital for government agencies to now incorporate these factors into map-making decisions, the vendor said.
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News. Follow us on Twitter or @alisoncdiana.