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Bill to improve FCC's broadband mapping passes House again

The Broadband DATA Act, meant to improve the accuracy of broadband maps for rural America, is close to becoming law.

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The House has passed a bill designed to help make broadband maps more accurate. 

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

The House passed a new version of a bill Tuesday meant to improve the accuracy of maps detailing where broadband is and isn't available in the US. The legislation is now on a fast track to the Senate, where it's expected to pass before going to President Donald Trump for signing. 

The bipartisan Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act was passed by the House late last year as part of a broader package of legislation intended to improve the Federal Communications Commission's broadband maps. The Senate also passed a version of the bill. The new House version of the bill reconciles the two versions of the legislation. But because there was an amendment on the House floor, the latest bill still must go back to the Senate.

The Senate is in agreement with the change, and the legislation is expected to pass that chamber without issue. 

The purpose of the Broadband DATA Act is to ensure the FCC collects more-granular information about where broadband does and doesn't exist. The bill requires the agency to deliver new rules for data collection and "establish a process to verify the accuracy of such data, and more."  

The FCC has already begun a process to improve the accuracy of its mapping by allowing the accuracy of the data to be verified by crowdsourcing. 

"Today, the House once again passed legislation to fix our nation's faulty broadband maps," Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, said in a joint statement. "Accurately mapping the availability of broadband internet service is essential to promoting the deployment of high-speed service to all Americans, especially those in unserved and underserved areas."

Wireless carriers serving rural parts of the country applauded the House's effort.

 "I commend the House for passing the Broadband DATA Act," Competitive Carriers Association President Steven K. Berry said. "Every Member of Congress knows the parts of their district that have insufficient or no broadband service, and this legislation will help ensure that these areas can access the advanced broadband services they need and deserve."

Problems with broadband maps 

The FCC has acknowledged that its current broadband maps are flawed. Though the agency's latest report suggests that 21 million Americans lack access to broadband with download speeds of 25Mbps, there's reason to believe that the figure is actually greater, especially in rural areas where FCC data isn't as accurate. 

The FCC's maps are supposed to sketch out where broadband is and isn't available, to figure out who gets the $4 billion in federal funding it doles out each year. But there are lots of problems with the current system for collecting the data to create these maps. The FCC builds its coverage maps using data that ISPs report twice a year in what's called Form 477. The first problem is that the data that's collected is self-reported by the carriers. 

Earlier this year a wireline carrier erroneously overstated its coverage, which skewed the FCC's draft report on broadband deployment. The mistake exaggerated progress in closing the digital divide. The FCC last year also called out Verizon, T-Mobile and US Cellular in a report for overstating their wireless coverage. As a result, the FCC reworked a $4.5 billion subsidy program to bring 4G LTE to rural communities, because the data was so skewed. The carriers say they were reporting what the FCC had requested.

Another problem, which could be fixed by the DATA Act, is that the parameters the FCC sets for collecting data aren't granular enough to give an accurate picture of broadband coverage. 

Currently, broadband providers report coverage based on census blocks, the smallest geographic area used by the US Census Bureau. If service is available in one part of a census block, the entire block is considered to have broadband. In rural areas, that home may be the only place with internet service for miles around. The DATA Act requires more-granular reporting. 

The Republican ranking members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and subcommittee highlighted the importance of this legislation in fixing the digital divide. 

"We cannot expand broadband to communities who lack adequate access without understanding exactly where those communities are, which is why this effort is so important," Reps. Greg Walden of Oregon and Bob Latta of Ohio said in a statement. "This bipartisan bill will help us assess the availability of internet across our country and take the necessary steps to improve connectivity for all Americans, regardless of their zip code."