Jonathan Spalter

Mapping Momentum

USTelecom launched our initiative to revolutionize broadband mapping nationwide in March. We answered the call from regulators, lawmakers and the consumers we serve rightfully demanding better tools to improve the allocation of federal broadband dollars and make progress ending the digital divide — especially in rural America.

We knew incremental change to the FCC’s outdated Form 477 process was not going to be enough to get the job done. Real movement in bringing connectivity to unserved markets required a fundamental rethinking of broadband mapping and data collection.

So USTelecom assembled a coalition of innovators to create a first-of-its kind broadband serviceable location mapping methodology. This geocoded location database would be built with new digital resources (like parcel data and building satellite imagery) and combined with provider broadband coverage information to improve everyone’s understanding of where broadband is and, more importantly, where it is not.

Our hope?

The concept would not just produce more granular data on broadband service, but could ultimately be handed off to policymakers to quickly deploy a scalable tool to increase broadband service in all corners of the country.

USTelecom recently shared with the FCC new findings from our Missouri pilot showing the continuing problems with census block reporting. We compared residential structures in Missouri (located using our mapping methodology) in Connect America Fund census blocks to housing unit counts in 2011 census bureau data for the same Missouri census blocks.

Our analysis found that structure counts per census block using the new broadband mapping methodology compared to 2011 census data did not match 64 percent of the time. We also found more than 4,000 census blocks with 100 percent more structures than the 2011 census data and more than 13,000 census blocks where the structure count was between 81 and 100 percent less than the 2011 census data.

Just three months after launching our pilot program in Missouri and Virginia, our efforts to “map the gap” are also gaining traction in Congress and the FCC.

The Senate Commerce Committee will consider the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act to create a national broadband map mandating adoption of the USTelecom methodology (what we call the Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric).

Senators on both sides of the aisle understand that fixing our maps goes hand in hand with ensuring federal resources reach communities in their states without access to broadband. Members of the House are considering similar mapping legislation as well.

The FCC has also demonstrated a commitment to fixing broadband maps and deploying service across the country. Chairman Pai just announced a proposal requiring the agency to adopt a broadband mapping plan that yields more granularity on a sub-census basis.

This is progress.

For our part, we expect to deliver the full results of our mapping pilot to the FCC at the end of this month. The outlook is promising.

Our mapping initiative has already — in just over three months — produced a high degree of accuracy and granularity about the actual location of broadband serviceable locations (particularly in rural areas) and proves the value of replicating the approach across the country.Jonathan Spalter

P.S.: There has been some talk about whether to reform broadband maps using polygons (so-called shapefiles) or the USTelecom mapping methodology. Here is our view: a shape outlining broadband coverage does not tell you anything if there is no underlying reference map. Without a precise identification of which locations are inside and outside of the shape, shapefiles actually do not provide any actionable information on service.

So, this is not an either/or proposition, but the sequencing is critical. Policymakers can and should use both approaches to improve the maps, but we urge them not to stop with shapefiles and get this done (once and for all) using USTelecom’s geocoded mapping methodology. It works.

More information on USTelecom’s Broadband Mapping Initiative is available on our Action Center.

This article was originally published on Medium