FCC renews the effort to get its Broadband Coverage Maps in order

Ian Scales
By Ian Scales

Feb 19, 2021

FCC Acting Chair, Jessica Rosenworcel

FCC Acting Chair, Jessica Rosenworcel

  • The FCC under its new acting chair, has turned the spotlight onto the agency’s flawed ‘broadband maps’
  • New measures are in train to get accurate data, but it won’t come fast enough to help much for a year or so

I know the US is a huge and diverse country, but even so.. what is it that makes the simple act  (you would have thought) of counting and then keeping tabs on the number and speeds of broadband connections in the US, so difficult?  

The ‘debate’ about the US ‘broadband coverage maps’ which are supposed to keep accurate tabs on availability but are actually  flawed and inaccurate, has been going on for years. But this week, as NASA managed the amazing feat of landing the Perseverance Rover on the surface of Mars to send back its first image, the probable and acting chair of the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, has announced that concerted action was about to be taken over the map question... finally. 

She’s formed a new taskforce to implement a long overdue revamp of the agency’s broadband data and mapping tools.

As a result the hope is that the agency and the government will have accurate information to inform their decisions on crucial matters such as where the need for subsidy is greatest and where the money should be spent in an effort to close the US digital divide.

But this saga has been going on for so long now that it’s difficult to imagine that the problems might be solved with a task force and some extra energy. 

But then, maybe this time. In March 2020, Congress passed the Broadband DATA Act which was designed to improve the accuracy of the maps by revamping the process by which the data was collected. Funding of US$98 million was approved and extra funds were made available for other broadband affordability and accessibility programmes later in the year. The outcome should be more precise mapping which clearly indicates the availability of both fixed and mobile broadband services.

New rules have been laid down to specify which service providers must report availability and/or coverage data and what the requirements are for reported speed and latency for fixed technologies.

But vigilance will be required to ensure the numbers aren’t rigged (again). The fact is that the system was especially flawed by the practice of counting an entire census block as ‘covered’ for broadband if just one, single household was registered as having broadband service.  Clearly, this tended to radically overstate the broadband availability. And it’s not just a problem of availability, data speeds can be highly variable and there are many stories of whole families struggling to work and learn through the pandemic with a measly 3 Mbit/s connection. 

The problems with the maps and available services has bubbled to the surface with a vengeance over the past year as people were forced to work and study from home thanks to the  pandemic.

So this time, fingers crossed, there may be enough outrage over broadband inadequacies to push change through and the US will finally get its accurate maps. But as always with data networking one of the big enemies is latency. In this case the changes are going to be slow coming through and observers reckon it will be 2022 by the time updated and accurate data has arrived. 

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