Mapping tools, such as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) National Broadband Map are used to illustrate where broadband internet services are available and help determine economic opportunity gaps propelled by access to 21st century infrastructure. To connect Americans, it is essential to know where to invest in broadband infrastructure.
To improve access, it must first be measured. The accuracy of these maps is vital to informing how broadband investments are deployed and funded. Multiple government agencies use data from the FCC maps to inform spending, including $20 billion used by the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to bring broadband to rural homes, more than $13 billion invested in rural broadband through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Reconnect Program, $9 billion per year administered through the Universal Service Administrative Company’s (USAC) Universal Service Fund, and $4.3 billion of broadband infrastructure projects overseen by NTIA.
However, shortcomings of the FCC’s dataset have been identified and criticized. Most notably, the Form 477 that service providers use to file data to the FCC counts an entire census block as ‘served’ if just one household on the block has good broadband access. This misleading information only makes it more difficult to close the digital divide in rural areas with large census blocks that have widely discrepant access to broadband. Moreover, a residential block is considered to have broadband ‘available’ if the service will be provided within a 10-day period.
Coverage maps do not tell the entire story. Only 5.6% of the U.S. population lacks “access” to broadband coverage at the standard 25/3 Mbps speed, still 34.9% of the population does not subscribe to broadband services. When isolating the disparity between “availability” and “adoption” in urban areas, most people are not able, or are choosing not to take advantage of the benefits of high-speed internet access. The cost of internet service – from equipment to installation costs on top of monthly fees – is one of the main barriers preventing people from getting online.
Politicians have discussed ways to lower costs and boost adoption in rural and urban areas where internet is accessible. The American Jobs Plan proposes one method, known as price transparency, to encourage service providers to disclose their prices to the public and boost competition.
FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has created a plan to progress the database of broadband availability and no longer rely on deceptive and restricted information. She is committed to upholding the Broadband DATA Act that requires the FCC, beginning in March 2020., to change its broadband data collection methods. Further, additional funding was provided in the December 2020 stimulus package.
In a recent development, the FCC has dedicated resources to crowdsourcing information for its mapping tools including through its FCC Speed Test. The Speed Test will help inform consumers, policymakers, and other stakeholders about broadband services across the U.S. However, not everyone can participate in a survey taken on a smartphone or smart-device if they lack the technology or the broadband needed to download the app.
Still, additional innovation and investment will be necessary to continue to improve not only the record of where broadband is provided, but how and if it is being used. To build a better picture of broadband access, adoption, and quality, public policy must prioritize accurate data collection to inform and support targeted investments in equitable internet access.