New money to tackle US rural broadband divide

via Flickr © Chris Potter (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © Chris Potter (CC BY 2.0)

  • The FCC has announced a new $20.4 billion rural fund, but will the cash find its way to the right places
  • The problem is that the maps that should speed it on its way are highly inaccurate, say critics
  • Pai says there's no time to waste, he'll get the current map updated with more data
  • Critics doubt that will work



As reported yesterday, the US The Federal Communications Commission has proposed a  Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which would direct up to $20.4 billion to expand broadband in unserved rural areas, claims the FCC.

That sounds like a  welcome step forward, but critics worry that the money may not efficiently get to where it’s needed most. The problem, they say, is that the ‘broadband maps’ which are supposed to highlight where broadband is and isn’t available, and at what speed, are woefully inaccurate. The data is often out of date or just plain wrong critics say, and anyone who bothers to log on and have a look can see how bad it is. 

The worst and most memorable snafu is that it takes just a single instance of a customer being served by a particular service in a census area for that area to be credited with its blanket availability - very often, of course, that isn’t the case.

Furthermore, this problem has been known about for years but nothing has been done about it - a history which has lead the more conspiracy-minded observers to wonder if broadband providers have found the current mapping situation more to their liking than not, especially if a subsidy is to be doled out and have been quietly urging the FCC to postpone action. 

According to the most outspoken Democrat member of the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, writes that “there is reason to think that the digital divide is a whole lot wider than our official statistics suggest.  One study has found that 162 million people across the country do not use internet service at broadband speeds. That turns our digital divide into a yawning chasm.”

 “Our wired maps have serious inaccuracies,” she writes, “Our wireless maps are so suspect they are the subject of an ongoing investigation.”

While Pai admits that the data collection programme as it  stands is flawed, the FCC voted to keep the current map and improve the data it collects by requiring broadband providers to furnish more accurate coverage data 

Not surprisingly, given the history, the Democrats on the highly partisan-divided commission, want better mapping to be put in place ‘before’ the FCC starts using the current maps to decide where to splash the cash. The FCC’s Chairman Pai wants the funds to be allocated as soon as possible - there is no time, he claims, for a comprehensive new mapping plan to take effect to influence the allocations.

Instead funds will be made available to any carrier on an equal basis (the previous scheme gave first refusal to the incumbent carrier) and they will compete to lodge the lowest bid to service broadband and voice customers in high cost areas. 

 Rosenworcel, however, says Pai’s FCC is letting the big details go unaddressed.  

 “Why won’t we commit to updating this map at the FCC?  I fear that the result of this effort is going to be killing off the National Broadband Map and substituting it with an impossible to find web page maintained by the Universal Service Administrative Company—and if that’s what happens, this agency will have failed.”

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