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Why Better Mapping is Critical to Getting Broadband Access to More People

Connected Nation Testifies on Capitol Hill

Cn Testifies 300x169 Connected Nation's Vice President of Government Affairs, Brent Legg, testifying before the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

Washington, D.C. (June 21, 2017) - For nearly two decades, Connected Nation has worked to bring internet access to families and businesses in both rural and urban settings, and, as a result, was recently asked to testify before the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. That’s because the focus of the hearing was on “Defining and Mapping Broadband Coverage in America.”

“We’ve got to have accurate maps,” Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) said during the June 21 hearing. “I have professors outside of Virginia Tech who don’t have service at all. I have huge sections geographically that the FCC thinks it’s serving but that service is not there. We’re not going to lay wire to every nook and cranny, but we’ve got to get them service. To solve these problems, we’ve got to first get the mapping done.”

“Reliable broadband mapping is a matter of critical importance to residents, businesses, and community anchor institutions in areas where robust broadband is lacking,” Brent Legg, Vice President of Government Affairs for Connected Nation (pictured right during his testimony), said in his opening statement. “Any good map should give voice to those who find themselves on the other side of the digital divide by prioritizing the closing of those gaps.”

There’s been new emphasis placed on the importance of broadband and the impact of those who are left out of a digital world. More than a half dozen bills have been introduced over the last month to expand broadband to more people, including the Rural Wireless Act of 2017 introduced in the House by Representative David Loebsack.

“In Iowa, access to the internet is a matter of survival,” Rep. Loebsack (D-IA) said before testimony began. “If our rural areas don’t have access to jobs and more they simply won’t survive.”

“I want to highlight how having broadband internet access helps veterans apply for jobs, communicate with families, and be part of the modern world—something they’re struggling with,” Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) said. “Without broadband internet access it’s difficult for them to take part in today’s society especially for those living under the poverty level or living in rural areas.”

“We must ask, how do you connect the unconnected?” Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), a committee member, said. “They should not be left behind in America, but I think it’s really important that we have this discussion about mapping. In the past, money has been spent on expansion before the maps were drawn. I hope we get the mapping done first and focus on the unserved areas.”

Rep. Walden was referring to the USDA’s Rural Utility Service Broadband Improvement Program (BIP). Several large broadband infrastructure projects were given federal funds for construction, but the National Broadband Map wasn’t completed until long after those grants were awarded. It’s a problem Connected Nation can prevent from happening again.

“We believe a neutral, third-party clearinghouse can help make updates as they happen,” Legg said. “Broadband service is being significantly over-reported in rural areas when it’s based on the current Form 477 estimates [provided to the FCC].There is a viable path for a neutral, non-government party to collect data in real time and to do validation and auditing of that data. This was how we were so effective during the SBI mapping years because we played that role in 13 states and territories.”

How to Improve the Mapping 
Part of the problem with the current broadband maps is how the mapping is being done and the 477 data provided to the Federal Communications Commission. These forms often rely on inaccurate and unverified data.

“You testified, Mr. Legg, that if even one household in a given block has service the entire census block is shown as being served,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who is serving as the subcommittee’s Chairperson, asked. “To me, this shows a major flaw in data collection. Why does this requirement exist? How do we fix it?”

“Broadband coverage in rural areas is often included in large census blocks,” Legg answered. “For example, there are five census blocks in Alaska that are bigger than the state of Connecticut, so if one or two people have access the entire census block is noted as having coverage. The census block measurement is really the most granular level available to the FCC right now, but we believe there should be more granular data collected in rural census blocks that are greater than 2 miles large. This measurement should be the standard, especially in rural areas.”

“I agree with Mr. Legg. Looking at this differently in the rural areas than the urban areas should certainly be considered,” Bryan Darr, the CEO of Mosaik who also testified, said.

“Bowling Green, Kentucky has a large population and WKU,” Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) said. “But just go 20 minutes outside of Bowling Green and they don’t have broadband access. Is that a matter of mapping and this census tracking you’re talking about?”

“Yes I believe it is an issue of inaccurate mapping,” Legg answered. “There are parts of Kentucky that are considered as having service according to 477 data but don’t in reality. That’s where I was saying that the size of the census block is not right. I would guess the federal government considers that area served when, in fact, it’s not.”

Connected Nation believes the data can be improved by a neutral group that also implements a validation and audit process of all data gathered. It’s possible to get closer to 100 percent accuracy if the country is divided into regional areas that are more thoroughly mapped.

The Need for Speed and Access to Rural America 
The discussion later turned to the importance of internet speeds and why rural areas need the access as much as people living and working in urban America. Why? A big reason: Innovation.

“Mr. Legg, can you also speak to these broadband maps and how they’re meant to service crop lands and agricultural areas? What is the importance of these areas?” Rep. Robert Latta (R-OH) asked.

“Rural areas across the country are the next explosion in terms of innovation in technology,” Legg responded. “An example is how farming is changing rapidly and the only way it can continue to change rapidly is with adequate infrastructure. Getting the mapping right is so important, which is why we’re so concerned about mapping in the rural area—and those are where the broadband coverage gaps exist at the highest rates.”

Legg also explained the importance of accurate broadband mapping when identifying the areas that need investment, emphasizing that we shouldn’t “forget there are a lot of areas that are very remote in the U.S. that need access as well.”

Several committee members and those providing testimony also agreed that what is now considered a minimum speed for internet today won’t be the same in the coming years. Unless something is done now, more Americans will find themselves further and further behind the rest of the world.

“When it comes to speed, the digital divide is growing in America as new technology is deployed,” Legg said. “Connected Nation’s concern as a nonprofit organization is what’s happening in some urban and rural areas where they are simply not keeping up. It’s hard to do anything in the twenty-first century without adequate access. It’s, frankly, now as important as roads and other utilities.”

Pictured above in second photo (left to right): Grant Seiffert, Connected Nation (CN) board member; Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA); and Brent Legg, VP of Gov't Affairs for CN

Click here to read Brent Legg’s full opening statement to the subcommittee.

Watch the full hearing: