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USTelecom: Reinventing broadband mapping is needed to close the digital divide

Commentary: Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of the trade group USTelecom, says the group's proposal to fix the FCC's broken broadband service mapping could help close the digital divide.

Universal access to broadband is essential to our country's economic future and key to the opportunity for our families and communities across the nation.   

jonathan-spalter-president-and-ceo-ustelecom-the-broadband-association

Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom

Ralph Alswang

If policymakers are serious about permanently closing the digital divide and extending broadband to our hardest-to-reach communities, a comprehensive approach that maps every home and business -- with an exact geographic location -- across the country is necessary.

Mapping has a rich history in America where we've always understood the value of exploring and surveying the country's sprawling territory and the resources they contain. As the United States added millions of new acres across the continent -- the Louisiana Purchase, Texas, California and the Pacific Northwest -- mapping and cataloguing our public lands, minerals and natural resources was always a top public priority.

Predecessors to the Bureau of Land Management and US Geological Survey (USGS) were established for this express purpose because of the federal government's obligation to systematically inventory the critical inputs underpinning the nation's growing economy.

Today, USGS has 8,000 employees and was appropriated roughly $1 billion in 2018 to keep tabs on American geology and energy resources. Contrast that with Congress' $7.5 million allocation to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to develop a complete map of American broadband deployment.

Like minerals in the 19th century, broadband is a critical economic input in the 21st century.  

USTelecom is leading the charge on a new, more precise, approach to broadband reporting and mapping. We have proposed to Congress and regulatory agencies a method to create a public-private partnership to map America's broadband infrastructure so policymakers and providers can better target scarce funding to communities with limited or no service options.

Currently, the Federal Communications Commission collects some deployment data from broadband providers by census block. What is lacking in that methodology, however, is location data on the homes and businesses that are not accurately reflected in the census block data collected today.

Millions of Americans still don't have broadband. This is one possible fix

The good news is that both the executive branch and Congress now are exploring in earnest how we can more effectively map broadband in America. As FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said recently, "Maintaining updated and accurate data about broadband deployment is critical to bridging the digital divide. It lets us target our efforts to those areas that most need it. And it allows us to measure our progress in bringing digital opportunity to all Americans."

This issue is particularly acute in many rural areas where census blocks are far larger than their urban and suburban counterparts and homes and businesses can be set back a significant distance, sometimes miles, from the road that forms the basis for their address.

While broadband providers typically can tell a potential customer or enterprise whether or not they serve their address, these same providers face challenges when the street address does not accurately depict the actual physical location of the home or business.   

To correct for these unique situations and find out who is really missing-out on broadband access, we need a detailed map of all the locations where people live and work (using a single methodology) so providers can efficiently plan and deploy network facilities that can service these locations. The map will provide critical insights for federal agencies and states so their broadband deployment policies are effectively targeting unserved locations. 

Our plan begins with a pilot program (funded by broadband providers) to test the concept in Missouri and Virginia, states with a mix of rural and urban communities where there is a range of fixed service providers using different technologies to provide connectivity.

The pilot will include several steps. First, development of a database of all broadband serviceable locations in the country with input from broadband provider address databases and other public and private third-party sources, such as land records.

Next, once the gathered inputs are harmonized and duplicates removed, our technology and database experts will geocode the locations, converting them into geographic coordinates on a map. This geocoded list of locations would be ready for broadband providers to overlay their service coverage areas, regardless of technology and the speeds offered in those locations.

Admittedly, any effort of this scale and complexity will face technical challenges and require confidentiality safeguards, but broadband providers are already among the leading investors in American infrastructure -- more than $1.6 trillion invested since 1996 -- and have a long track record and commitment to protecting private information. 

There is a saying in business, "You can't manage what you can't measure." Similarly, when it comes to broadband, "You can't deploy what you can't map."

A bold commitment and new approach to broadband mapping is what it will take. With this new mapping initiative, our nation's broadband innovators are pledging to jumpstart a partnership with government to definitively map internet service in America and complete the job of connecting the country with broadband -- the 21st century's indispensable resource.

Jonathan Spalter is the president and CEO of USTelecom, the national trade association representing telecommunications providers, innovators, suppliers, and manufacturers committed to connecting the world through the power of broadband. Please see the following story for another perspective on the issue of broadband service mapping.