Broadband access is essential in the 21st Century. To achieve availability across the country, the Federal government must have accurate broadband access data to ensure that funds and resources are being spent to expand coverage to unserved areas. However, accuracy issues with the broadband map have plagued the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)–the Federal entity tasked with compiling the data.

Today, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation heard testimony from industry groups and telecommunications providers to “examine the current state of the nation’s broadband maps, and evaluate the ongoing efforts within the Federal government and private sector to collect more accurate broadband coverage data.”

“While significant progress is being made, millions remain on the wrong side of the connectivity gap,” said Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of the United States Telecom Association. “Part of the challenge is our nation lacks a comprehensive connectivity map indicating precisely where high-speed broadband service is available and, most importantly, where it is not.”

Each witness brought ideas on how to improve broadband mapping, as well as what struggles currently exist. Many also brought issues they’ve had with the FCC’s current processes and procedures.

Spalter highlighted a pilot program his organization is working, “After working with innovative broadband companies and associations across the country, and having discussions with key Federal and state level government stakeholders and Congress, USTelecom launched the Broadband Mapping Initiative pilot to quite literally map this gap.” He explained that the goal is to “create a consistent national dataset identifying all broadband serviceable locations using a single methodology to provide a harmonized reference point for broadband reporting. The Broadband Mapping Initiative pilot, using modern data analytics, will deliver a more detailed and cohesive view of where broadband is and is not.”

The pilot program will be launched in two states–Missouri and Virginia–and will be a partnership between USTelecom, ITTA, and the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. Spalter also noted that the pilot will involve companies of various sizes and tech types, including AT&T, Consolidated, CenturyLink, Frontier, RiverStreet, TDS, Verizon, and Windstream. He said USTelecom expects the project to be completed by Q3 of this year. “At the end of that period, USTelecom and its consortium will submit the pilot results into the record in the FCC’s open Form 477 [the form the FCC uses to collect broadband coverage data] reform proceeding.”

Chip Strange, VP of strategic initiatives at Ookla, focused his testimony on five main ideas: broadband data is a national key performance indicator; fixing poor coverage maps is an economic problem, not a technological one; the Federal government needs to be ready to listen to stakeholders and communities and embrace new approaches to broadband expansion; the Federal government “needs to move beyond the focus on speed;” and the Federal government needs to ensure it is deploying resources in the most effective way possible.

While the FCC has been tasked with compiling the coverage map, Tim Donovan, SVP of the Competitive Carriers Association, urged governmentwide collaboration during the process.

“While significant efforts to update coverage maps will take place at the FCC, agencies across the government should work in coordination to produce the most reliable coverage maps possible,” he said. “For example, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration should continue its ongoing efforts to refresh the national broadband map and the Department of Agriculture should base rural broadband funding programs on improved data.”

Donovan also dug deep into how the FCC measures coverage availability and how organizations can challenge what they view to be inaccurate data. Donovan cited a report from the last December where the FCC said that “approximately 100% of the American population lives in geographical areas covered by mobile LTE with a minimum advertised speed of 5Mbps/1Mbps.” However, Donovan explained that “this figure does not match Congress’ or consumers’ on-the-ground experience.”

Donovan further explained that when inaccurate data exists, funds and resources are not deployed effectively.

To correct inaccurate data, a challenge must be filed. However, the challenge process is lengthy and complicated, making it difficult for both large and small telecommunications providers to complete. During the hearing, Donovan explained the impact of making challenges difficult to complete, “Without eligibility for support, unserved people living in those areas could wait over a decade or more before having another opportunity to access mobile broadband services that are reasonably equivalent to services found in the nation’s more densely-populated regions.” Other witnesses, including Mike Oblizalo, VP and general manager of Hood Canal Communications, and Mike McCormick, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, agreed with Donovan that the challenge process must be simplified so organizations–large and small–can actually challenge inaccurate data.

In terms of next steps, Donovan urged the FCC to investigate and “rectify overstated coverage figures, and take steps to improve the next mobile coverage data collection.”

While the majority of witnesses touched on the broad need for broadband access, McCormick specifically highlighted the need for access for the agriculture sector.

“Farmers and ranchers depend on broadband just as they do highways, railways, and waterways to ship food, fuel, and fiber across the country and around the world,” he said. “Many of the latest yield maximizing farming techniques require broadband connections for data collection and analysis performed both on the farm and in remote data centers. However, 29 percent of U.S. farms have no access to the Internet according to the USDA report, ‘Farm Computer Usage and Ownership, 2017.’”

As with other witnesses, McCormick challenged the accuracy of the FCC’s coverage maps. “What I know from my organization’s in-depth review of the FCC’s existing coverage maps is that they are clearly wrong. In essence, the FCC’s map showed that Mississippi was 98 percent covered with mobile broadband services, which Farm Bureau clearly disputes.”

In terms of suggestions, McCormick calls for changes to how data is collected. Instead of using census block data, which is what the FCC currently uses, he calls for more granular data to be used to give a more accurate picture of broadband availability. Additionally, he notes that the Farm Bureau has been “a long-time advocate for the inclusion of cropland and ranchland as a metric of broadband access. Precision agricultural equipment requires reliable, high capacity fixed and mobile broadband connections for data collection and analysis performed both on the farm and in remote data centers. As more precision equipment becomes available, farmers cannot take full advantage of that equipment if they do not have access to reliable, high capacity broadband in the field or on the farm.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.