FCC proposes new map-based collection method for broadband availability reports

19 July 2019 by Steve Blum
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The ever increasing volume of complaints about the accuracy of broadband availability data published by the Federal Communications Commission is producing results. In August, the FCC will vote on a proposal to require Internet service providers to submit electronic map data that shows where they offer service, at what speeds it’s offered and which technology it uses.

The current data sets are based on census block reports, with a census block reckoned as served at a given speed level if one home or business within it can get that level. As a result, estimates of how many people have access to acceptable broadband service are overstated and communities that should be eligible for broadband infrastructure and service subsidies are shortchanged. Sometimes the overestimates are substantial. When taken at face value, the result can be highly embarrassing to a public agency, as the FCC learned earlier this year when it blindly accepted inflated reports of fiber to the home service in the northeast U.S.

The FCC’s proposed new method should improve the accuracy of the data, but it’s an open question as to whether it will be more (or less) useful for detailed broadband availability analysis. One advantage of census block-based reporting is that it matches up cleanly with the wealth of data collected by the federal census bureau. New methods will have to be developed to estimate the number of people and households within a reported service area, as well as all the other data the census bureau offers to broadband analysts, such as household income and education levels.

Another question is how long the transition will take. The FCC didn’t set a deadline for development of the internal systems needed to submit and process the data, although it did say that the new data would have to be submitted six months after it’s ready to accept it. That’s just the first step, though. Once the new data is in hand, it has to be evaluated and published by the FCC, and then assessed by other agencies that use it to make broadband infrastructure subsidy decisions, such as the California Public Utilities Commission and the federal agriculture department.

In the meantime, ISPs will have to continue submitting broadband availability data the old way.