Legislating to Connect America: Improving the Nation’s Broadband Maps
By Jonathan Spalter
Our nation’s broadband providers — large and small — collectively have invested far more (and for far longer) than any other sector to connect rural America and address one of the most critical challenges facing our country: ensuring every person in the nation has access to the foundation of the 21st century American dream.
In the digital age, broadband connectivity underpins American opportunity. We are at a pivotal moment where we have the tools ready (not to mention the bipartisan will) to ensure we can identify and connect the unconnected quickly, efficiently and accurately.
Now it’s time to remove the final barrier. Our nation lacks a single map that can accurately identify every home and business that is currently unserved. If we can’t see it; we can’t fix it.
So, that’s why USTelecom launched the Broadband Mapping Initiative.
We all understand the severe limitations of the ‘one-served, all-served’ census block approach that still guides federal investments in achieving universal broadband service. In the past, it served an important purpose, helping public-private efforts to increase rural connectivity by more than 70 percent over the past decade.
But we’ve reached a plateau.
The good news: the advent of new data sources and processing capabilities, coupled with the bipartisan support of our partners in Congress and the FCC, means we have the tools to account for every single served and unserved location in the nation and deliver near 20–20 vision on where broadband is deployed, and where it is not.
Our mapping initiative brought together a diverse group of partners who stepped up to the plate to forge a lasting solution.
We launched a pilot program in April. It is now complete, and the findings are crystal clear: yes, we can quickly and affordably ‘map the gap’ — and with a degree of accuracy that makes the census-block or shapefile-only approaches look like ‘pin the tail on the donkey.’
Equally important, we can take this step concurrent with any new broadband support programs such as the FCC’s potentially game-changing $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund — in a manner that need not delay — indeed would likely accelerate — our ability to finally and truly connect our nation.
This is a once in a generation leap forward in identifying the availability of broadband.
We conducted our pilot in Virginia and Missouri. We are now advocating the FCC take the initiative and scale it nationwide — producing a visibility into our country that no regulator or provider has seen before.
Our findings underscore the urgency of this work — identifying a margin of error as high as 38 percent under the census-block approach. That’s up to 445,000 homes marked served that could in fact be unserved — in our two pilot states alone. To argue that our maps need to choose between shapefiles now and location fabric later is a false choice. Our pilot proves we can have both.
That’s one of the reasons why USTelecom strongly supports the bipartisan Broadband DATA Act and the MAPS Act that mandate the proper ‘ready, aim, fire’ sequencing of mapping the gap and then targeting finite federal resources with a precision that hasn’t been possible to date. Critically, the legislation wisely pairs more granular reporting with more precise location identification to close the gap.
Creating a granular database of all broadband serviceable locations will provide policymakers a necessary picture of where scarce government support and taxpayer dollars should be targeted and allow providers the opportunity to invest those resources efficiently and with greatest impact.
Most importantly, this new mapping approach will render visible — and thus reachable — the unseen and unserved.