Cramer: Let’s fix Virginia’s broadband map

Eric Cramer is President and CEO at Wilkes Communications / RiverStreet Networks, a USTelecom member based in Wilkes County, North Carolina.

The legendary Captain John Smith and his crew mapped the colony of Virginia in 1612 using early mapmaking tools to catalogue the land and various waterways of the New World.

What would he think of the mapping moment we are in 400 years later where GPS, satellite imagery and street level photography have made location data for most of the world available on your smartphone?

There is an area where the mapping revolution has been a technological laggard, and you might be surprised that it has major implications for broadband internet service in rural Virginia.

Here’s how:

The federal government currently collects data on broadband service by census block and uses the information to distribute various forms of support to help communications providers deploy broadband infrastructure in hard to reach corners of Virginia.

If one home or business in a census block has service, the government marks the entire block as “broadband served.”
In reality, there is no accurate map of every structure in Virginia that shows where broadband is available (and, more importantly, where it is not). When we have an incomplete or inaccurate map, it is nearly impossible for broadband service providers like Wilkes Communications and RiverStreet Networks to know exactly which communities in the commonwealth need connectivity the most.

Why does this matter?

At this very moment, the federal government is working on a plan to auction $20.4 billion to ensure companies like my own can quickly and efficiently get broadband to our nation’s rural families, businesses and communities. The federal government will be using broadband maps to allocate these dollars to providers and network operators doing the hard work of connecting consumers to the internet.

The highest and best use of these funds demands a precise picture of broadband availability to make sure that prudent infrastructure investments — and necessary government support — are spent wisely and responsibly.

Working with broadband service providers and trade associations across the country, Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks launched a state-of-the art project this year to reinvent broadband mapping and definitively understand broadband access in Virginia.

Here is the concept: a new single database that will precisely map the broadband access gap by combining existing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data with addresses, building parcel data and satellite imagery to create a new national mapping reference point.

Our Broadband Mapping Initiative started with a pilot program in Virginia and Missouri, and now, four months later, the results are in.

Here is what we found: There are major differences in broadband availability when you compare the current approach (using census block data) with our mapping concept.

The pilot revealed that 38 percent of homes and businesses counted as “served” under current reporting are not receiving broadband from participating providers. We compared residential structures in Virginia (located using our mapping methodology) to Virginia houses in 2011 census bureau data and found the data did not match more than 53 percent of the time.

In other words, providers committing to deploying broadband in Virginia based only on existing census data are essentially making deployment decisions in the dark.

We are fortunate in the commonwealth to have a state broadband program already being funded and support being allocated for projects. This effort would only help enhance that program through more accurate mapping in the future.

Our industry has collectively invested $1.7 trillion since 1996 to deploy, maintain and upgrade our national communications networks. We have made great strides, but too many Americans are still waiting for the opportunity to get online.

Broadband service providers and the FCC should not be making investment and deployment decisions using antiquated mapping technology first adopted a generation ago. We need Washington to adopt this innovative mapping program nationwide so that Virginia consumers get the connectivity they deserve and federal resources are spent on the rural areas that need it most.

This article originally appeared in The Roanoke Times. You can view it HERE.