The FCC's broadband map won't be ready for a year. This data company has already built one

LightBox, which helped Georgia build a detailed map of internet service, has put information together to show where coverage gaps exist across the US.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Shara Tibken
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read

LightBox has pulled Wi-Fi and location data to build a broadband map of the US.

Screenshot by Shara Tibken/CNET

The federal government is poised to allocate billions -- $65 billion, to be exact -- to make sure all Americans have speedy internet at home. But it still doesn't know where the problem areas are. That's because of bad Federal Communications Commission maps that aren't detailed enough to show the gaps

Now a real estate data company thinks it's created one of the most detailed maps available, showing exactly where coverage is strong and where it's lacking. LightBox, which helped the state of Georgia build what some experts call the most detailed broadband map in the country, published its own US map late Wednesday that combines its precise address data with information from about 2 billion Wi-Fi access points across the country. 

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

LightBox "basically can, with a high degree of confidence, tell you, 'This is what the situation is in reality,'" CEO Eric Frank said in an interview ahead of the map's release. "These are the places that have internet, and these are the places that don't show any appearance of internet."

Locating local internet providers

Millions of Americans around the country lack access to fast internet at home, a need that's become especially critical over the past year and a half as the COVID-19 pandemic forced everything from family gatherings to classes and business meetings to go online. The federal government has an opportunity to fix this problem through the $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending package the Senate passed in August. The bill, which would allocate $65 billion to help close the digital divide, now must be approved by the House before it can head to President Joe Biden's desk. 

Though federal, state and local governments want to deliver better internet access, a fundamental flaw remains in not knowing where the problems lie. The faulty FCC national broadband map has essentially made millions of Americans without fast internet "invisible," as Microsoft put it, and unless the data improves, they're likely to remain so. 

Locating local internet providers

A flawed map

Up to now, FCC maps have been too vague to be helpful. The agency collects what's called Form 477 data from internet service providers, which contains information about where ISPs say they can provide service within 10 business days. It's measured at the census block level, the smallest geographic area used by the US Census Bureau, and if only one home in a census block can get service, the whole block is considered served and isn't eligible for public funds. 

The flawed maps present a big hurdle as the government tries to allocate billions through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, or RDOF, which the FCC has called its "largest investment ever to close [the] digital divide." Since the first phase of RDOF funding ended in November 2020, complaints have surfaced that some winning bids went to entities funding broadband to parking lots or well-served urban areas.

Critics like Steven Berry, head of the Competitive Carrier Association, which represents rural wireless companies, says the FCC's faulty maps aren't detailed enough to indicate to the bidders whether the areas they're bidding on were already served or didn't require service (the maps included geographies with airport runways or large parking lots). 

"Pervasive errors in broadband data unfortunately led to some of the nation's wealthiest, most densely populated areas set to receive RDOF Phase I funds," he said.  

To address these issues, the FCC in July issued letters to 197 RDOF winners with offers to allow them to withdraw their funding requests for areas that were already being served or where there were questions of whether service was even needed. 

The latest FCC data, from January, which includes numbers provided through the end of 2019, determined that fewer than 14.5 million Americans -- or 4.4% of the population -- lack access to fixed broadband, which is defined as download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. But Microsoft, which looks at how quickly people across the US download its software and security updates, estimated in June that 120.4 million people, or more than a third of the US population, don't use the internet at broadband speeds

Watch this: Millions lack broadband at a time when they must have it. Now what?

LightBox's map pegged the number of people without home internet at all to be nearly 60 million. The company hopes its data will let local governments figure out where their gaps are and apply for funding to bridge them.

"This allows those organizations to come at applications for funding and prepare the best case for their state so they are competitive," Frank said. 

Improving FCC maps

Thanks to $65 million in funding from Congress in December, the FCC now will require internet service providers to share more detailed data, giving a better picture of what areas are unserved by broadband. These requirements, outlined in the Broadband DATA Act passed in March 2020, require the FCC to open the map to public feedback, letting people flag when something's wrong and provide more data points on gaps. In February, acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel launched a new task force to fix the data, saying, "it's no secret that the FCC's existing broadband maps leave a lot to be desired."

ISPs have long resisted sharing address-level data with the FCC, and still won't under the new plan. Instead, carriers will report on access based on regions called "shapefiles," which will be overlaid on census blocks to depict the areas where broadband-capable networks exist. But until the FCC publishes its new maps -- expected some time next year-- it won't be clear whether those shapefiles are detailed enough to help. 

The FCC says it's been making progress on its mapping effort over the past six months. The agency has selected a system developer to build and implement the map, and it's released a detailed public notice seeking comment on technical aspects of the mobile challenge and verification processes. 

In August, the agency released a mobile LTE broadband and voice coverage map. It includes a snapshot of the type of precise mobile broadband availability data, based on new standardized parameters, that the FCC will collect through its Broadband Data Collection program. A spokeswoman for the agency said that the mobile map provides a preview of how it'll make data available to the public for fixed broadband service maps. 

In the meantime, states have been building their own, more detailed maps. That includes Georgia, a LightBox customer.

Building detailed maps

Georgia state officials passed a law to protect ISP data and make the providers comfortable enough to share details about what addresses they served. But the officials realized they needed to find a way to know what addresses actually were homes, not post office boxes or structures where people don't live or work. That's where LightBox came in. The company has data on precise geospatial extent, address, occupancy classification and number of business or dwelling units for nearly all structures across the United States.  

ISPs provided Georgia with information on the addresses they served, and the state then matched that with LightBox's data to identify locations that didn't have broadband. 

"The Georgia broadband map is the most granular in the nation," Gigi Sohn, an FCC staffer from 2013 to 2016 under Chairman Tom Wheeler and current distinguished fellow at Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, said in a speech in late January

LightBox's new US map isn't quite as detailed. It doesn't include data from ISPs, and it doesn't show what speeds each location can access. Right now it just shows if an address has Wi-Fi service. And LightBox doesn't have good data for tribal lands, a part of the US particularly hurt by lack of broadband access. 

Also, while LightBox has data down to a particular address for about 97% of the US, its public map shows coverage only at the census block, the same level of granularity as the FCC's maps. But it can provide information at the individual structure level to the entities that need it, such as state governments applying for broadband funding. It can incorporate demographic data, internet speed test data, climate data and other information, based on what its customers need. 

LightBox also isn't alone in trying to tackle this problem. Several states, including Maine and Pennsylvania, have worked with Measurement Lab (M-Lab) to use its free speed tests to help create statewide coverage maps. The website BroadbandNow, which researches and tracks internet coverage around the country, has also built a national broadband map using data that internet service providers have provided to the FCC. This map looks at broadband availability and speeds, and it offers a national view of pricing down to the census block.

LightBox didn't build its map out of the goodness of its heart. Its business is selling data, and it hopes to work with states, local governments or even the federal government to be the official broadband map builder. In the meantime, it'll keep refining its map, which'll be automated to update itself. 

Frank compared LightBox's map to "stacking Swiss cheese."

"We've layered a lot of different information here to get national coverage," he said. "Every individual slice of that information has holes in it. ... But if you have enough Swiss cheese and layer it just so, you can remove most of those holes, and you can create something that is very valuable and very informative."