Many states and counties have little insight into, but plenty of funding for, broadband infrastructure -- and they will not spend the money without knowing it's going where it is needed.
Understanding the FCC's current map provides little usable data, and a number of these regional governments are now figuring out ways to work around rather than with the census-block-based broadband map. With the possibility of up to 50 states each using its own approach to calculating broadband coverage and density, it behooves the FCC to accelerate its options. After all, the lack of a useful national resource wastes invaluable time operators could use deploying infrastructure to under- and unserved homes and businesses across the country.
Here are examples of how some states and counties deal with a lack of visibility into their infrastructure, including one very simple approach perhaps all states might consider:
To ensure it gets the most out of its $400 million rural-broadband budget, Illinois seeks a third-party provider to create an accurate map of Internet availability within the state.
This requirement, as reported by Illinois NPR, underscores the uselessness of the map provided by the FCC. The commission, as operators and government agencies (along with a growing number of consumers and SMBs) know, relies on operators' self-reported census block data. If one premise within an entire census block -- which can be miles wide in rural regions -- has access to a provider's service, then the FCC considers the entire area "served."
Echoing Outside the Windy City
Illinois wants to ensure more than Chicago is wrapped in broadband infrastructure.
(Source: Yinan Chen from Pixabay)
And census block data is even more inaccurate than it sounds, several service providers told Broadband World News under pledge of anonymity during a 2019 Fiber Broadband Association conference in Orlando. In a Catch-22, because some regions are incorrectly defined as receiving service -- any kind of broadband service -- operators within these areas are then unable to get grants, loans or any other funding from state, local or federal agencies to bring broadband.
"It's really frustrating," one sales executive told BBWN angrily.
This scenario plays out across many states. Last June, the entire Illinois Congressional Delegation sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the four commissioners asking the agency to reform the mapping process (which the FCC is doing). In part, the letter noted some RLECs have been unable to apply for or receive funding due to inaccurate maps.
These RLECs have provided detailed engineering studies, collected and prepared customer “testimonial” documents, and submitted an extensive FCC petition for reconsideration regarding competitive overlap. They also have filed comments and documents with the FCC requesting a review of these core issues. Despite these efforts, inaccurate mapping has continued to hurt the ability of affected companies to expand broadband to rural communities. In one case, a small Illinois RLEC was initially declared as 100% competitively overlapped due to inaccurate 477 reporting by another broadband service provider; and as a result, was deemed ineligible to receive funding.
The county debuted a "Broadband Availability Study" in mid-December as the next step in its "Improving Communication and Data Technology in Both the Business Sector and in Residential Settings" program -- part of its "Connecting Roanoke County to the World" initiative. The study's goal is to locate areas of the county that are under- and unserved, as well as served, at speeds based on FCC guidelines, according to Roanoke County.
Making History Beyond Main Street
Roanoke's Historic District, as well as the city itself, already have broadband coverage but Roanoke County wants to ensure the entire Virginia county has FCC-mandated speeds, hence its ambitious survey efforts.
The survey has only five questions, which should make it more attractive to all the county's household members, including kids, as well as employees and business owners, IT Director Bill Hunter told WDBJ7
. "We want to determine where it really is, and where it really isn't," he said.
By identifying these areas, Roanoke may gain access to state or federal grants, public-private partnerships or other funding mechanisms. "The state of Virginia has made some very nice grant opportunities available, but to get the grants you have to do your homework," he said.
The Georgia Broadband Initiative is a legislative effort surrounding the Achieving Connectivity Everywhere (ACE) Act featuring planning, incentives and deployment of services to the approximately 1.6 million underserved and unserved Georgia residents.
The ACE team includes government agencies like the Department of Community Affairs, Georgia Technology Authority, Department of Economic Development, State Properties Commission and Georgia Department of Transportation. The agencies then implemented a governance framework for communication and project management. An advisory committee includes representatives from industry such as AT&T, Georgia Cable Association, Comcast, Georgia Telecom Association and Windstream. The team also engaged with broadband experts at federal and state agencies, it reported.
Like other state leaders, Georgia knew of the disparity between reality and the FCC census-block broadband map and designed a two-phase program to gather and create its own broadband map. DCA chose GTA to satisfy the legislation's mapping requirement; in turn, GTA contracted the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government to execute a broadband mapping strategy, which published a map based solely on FCC data in phase one (completed) and a map based on enhanced data (phase two), that launched with a three-county pilot.
Ingredients Make the Map
In a three-county pilot of Phase II of its broadband mapping project, the state of Georgia discerned a big difference between data provided by the FCC and data it received directly from providers under NDA.
(Source: Georgia Broadband Initiative)
Having hired CostQuest Associates
for insight into the state's make-up, Georgia's analysis of 2017 FCC data showed 45,920 unserved census blocks (347,969 individual premises) presumed to have no broadband at all, the state's report said. Phase II mapping will evaluate all 165,310 census blocks within Georgia (an estimated 3,831,863 premises) via a Master Address File which GTA must develop by county.
Georgia plans to then share this information with providers operating within the state which, in turn, must disclose their precise deployment data with Georgia's broadband department under a strict non-disclosure agreement, according to the report. If they do not participate in the NDA, operators will be ineligible for an state or local broadband funding, a broadband executive told Broadband World News under condition of anonymity.
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News