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OPINION: A Better Approach to Universal Broadband

The following opinion piece was published in Morning Consult on June 12, 2019

It was submitted by Tom Ferree, Connected Nation's Chairman & CEO 

Ferreetom 021 W Best 682x1024 Headroom 200x300 Tom Ferree, Chairman & CEO, Connected Nation

The 2020 presidential race is here, and with it, national debates about the hot topics of the day – jobs, taxes and health care to name a few. Listen more closely, however, and you will hear presidential hopefuls discussing infrastructure and rural broadband. One has promised broadband in every single household by 2022. Another promised a rural agenda that turns on access to broadband. In Congress, Republicans and Democrats are coming together behind long-awaited broadband legislation.

At Connected Nation, we are always thankful when broadband access makes it into the national conversation. Unfortunately, many of these promises and proposals will continue to be hamstrung until the Federal Communications Commission improves its broadband data.

The FCC’s annual “Broadband Deployment Report” drives public funds and private investment targeted at bridging the digital divide, and it requires urgent reform. The latest Broadband Deployment Report estimates that approximately 21 million Americans do not have access to broadband connectivity, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that number is actually much higher.

Connected Nation’s own map shows a vast swath of America where we have “low or medium confidence” in whether or not broadband is truly available in areas the FCC says it is. Other third-party maps – Microsoft’s, for example – shows an estimated population of 163 million Americans who are not accessing the internet at broadband speeds.

When the FCC’s data overstates broadband access, the impacts can be devastating for rural America. If an area is counted as having access when that is not in fact the case, it will not be eligible for public funds to expand connectivity, and internet service providers will overlook the area when determining where to focus their deployment efforts.

In order to bring broadband to every single household within the decade, we need to know exactly which households and businesses remain in the digital dark, how many there are and where they are located.

This begins by reforming Form 477. Form 477 gathers information about where broadband is and where broadband “could” be deployed from private ISPs. When an ISP says it does or could deploy broadband to any household or business in a single census block, the FCC classifies every household or business in that block as being covered. This is particularly problematic in rural areas where census blocks are the largest — the very areas where reliable broadband data is needed the most.

The largest census block in the United States is larger than the state of Connecticut. In other words, a hypothetical ISP would only have to say they currently provide or could provide broadband to one home or business within an area the size of Connecticut, and every other establishment in the census block would be considered covered.

As soon as possible, the FCC must overhaul or replace the current Form 477 process. One proposed way to spur action at the FCC is the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2019. Introduced by Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, Brian Schatz, Jerry Moran and Jon Tester, this legislation would supplant Form 477 with an entirely new process that includes granular service availability reporting, a robust public feedback process, a comparison of the reported data against third-party commercial datasets, GIS reporting assistance for smaller service providers, and perhaps most importantly, targeted on-the-ground verification of the resulting maps. Clearly, the current process is broken, and bipartisan cooperation and innovative solutions like those contained in this legislation are needed to solve the problem.

Presidential candidates and members of Congress are right to issue calls for universal broadband, but their solutions will be better served by an honest assessment of the state of broadband – an assessment that the FCC can deliver by reforming Form 477 as well as diversifying and validating its data.