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Pai: FCC Must Crowdsource Broadband Map

The FCC wants to crowdsource its often-criticized map of broadband availability across the US to improve accuracy and ensure maximum use of deployment dollars.

“[Today] I’m proposing the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, an all-new approach to mapping that will collect granular broadband availability maps from service providers using shapefiles,” Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a blog. “But we won’t just be taking their word for it: I’m also proposing that we verify those maps through crowdsourcing — feedback directly from the public. If a provider can’t provide the service shown on its map, you’ll be able to tell us directly. This process will let us better target our scarce universal service funds where they are needed most.”

Service providers currently submit coverage information themselves via Form 477, generating census block-related data that can be incomplete or inaccurate. Census blocks show all premises within areas that range from a city block to thousands of square miles, according to the US Census Bureau. Puerto Rico, for example, is one census block. If an operator serves one customer within a census block, all premises are deemed “covered” by broadband.

Prospective subscribers may be confused or angered. And agencies can prevent loans going to service providers because, at least on paper, an area is not unserved based on the FCC map, according to comments by some operators during a funding panel at Fiber Connect in Orlando. The USDA does not use census blocks, preferring to tap user data, said Chad Rupe, acting administrator for Rural Utilities Service at the US Department of Agriculture, in response to an audience member’s question.

“I come from Wyoming and our census blocks are the size of counties,” he said. “I am very attuned to the fact we don’t want to avoid getting people service who need it.”

Industry lobbying group NCTA-The Internet & Television Association recommended the FCC use crowdsourcing to complement operator-provided data. The FCC should consider “shapefile” reporting, which allows operators to include areas currently under- or unserved that they can reach within seven to 10 days without needing major work.

Pai’s proposal
One of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund’s priorities is to ensure money goes where it’s most needed, Pai wrote.

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would deliver $20.4 billion over the next ten years to support high-speed broadband networks in rural America. Pai wants to deploy the fund in two phases

Phase I would address totally unserved areas. The second part would target other unserved regions not tackled in the first portion of funding, plus areas the FCC deems only partly served after it adds crowdsourced data to the map. Finally, Pai wants to increase the minimum speed from 10/1 Mbit/s to 25/3 Mbit/s, favoring faster services with lower latency such as gigabit Internet and symmetric services. The commission also would expand the classification of eligible operators, he said.

“We’ll target unserved households in a census block that is otherwise served, sort of like filling in the white spaces of a picture,” Pai said. “My proposal would also open the auction to all types of Internet service providers, such as rural telephone companies, small cable providers, fixed wireless companies and electric cooperatives.”

Crowdsourced maps: available now
A number of organizations already have crowdsourced maps available for public perusal.

NEO Partners LLC shares a basic but serviceable map, used to support the services sold to municipalities and other clients, Chief Technology Officer Glenn Fishbine told Broadband World News. It’s an alternative to the FCC map, which NEO Partners’ map often supersedes by using data automatically generated when operators first connect a customer to broadband, he said.

In June, Oregon’s Lane County teamed with Technology Association of Oregon’s Hack for a Cause event to develop a new solution to measure US broadband penetration — Three months earlier, the National Association of Counties (NACo) began working with the Local Initiatives Support Corp. and Rural Community Assistance Partnership on an app with the same goal (See Broadband Map Gets Open Sourced via App and Oregon Groups Lead New Crowdsourced Broadband Map Initiative .)


Read Merit’s comments to the NTIA regarding census block data here: