The Federal Communications Commission approved an order Thursday to better identify gaps in broadband coverage through a new data collection process.
The commission established a new process to gather data for broadband deployment maps that have been highly criticized as inaccurate. The agencies will try to collect more accurate broadband coverage data from internet service providers while also gathering public comments on the accuracy of the agency's service maps.
“We will go beyond our current census-block level reporting,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said at a meeting of the commission. “Instead (we will) require fixed broadband providers to submit granular broadband coverage polygons depicting the areas where they actually have broadband-capable networks and make fixed broadband service available.”
He said the FCC would no longer count everyone as served with broadband if one person in a census block is served. A census block — an inexact measurement that could be a city block in an urban environment but hundreds of square miles in a rural area — is considered served if just one person in the block has service.
Rural broadband advocates, Congress, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue have criticized the broadband maps as inaccurate.
“Regarding mapping, we are grateful that the FCC recognizes the need to fill the gaps that exist in current coverage maps," said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. "Incorrect mapping can lead to potentially harmful pitfalls with maps that show services as available where consumers cannot get them at all, and in other places they show speeds available at levels that cannot consistently be delivered."
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel voted to approve the proposal, but still had concerns.
“For starters, it doesn’t answer the question of what will happen to the National Broadband Map,” Rosenworcel added. “Maps are a vital tool for the public to understand the state of service across the country. Why won’t we commit to updating this map at the FCC?”
Rosenworcel said that while the agency’s most recent report showed that more than 21 million Americans have no access to high-speed internet service,an independent study found that some 162 million people across the country do not use internet service at broadband speeds.
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said the order was only a “nudge in the right direction."
“Notably, no timeline or mechanism of accountability is provided to guarantee when improvements to the data the commission collects or the maps it creates will be made,” Starks said.
Commissioners also approved a proposed rulemaking to set a budget of $20.4 billion over 10 years through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. The funds would be made available to providers who offer a minimum download speed of 25 mbps and 3 mbps upload in underserved areas.
The fund would make available at least $16 billion for Phase I and use the remainder for Phase II.
The commission also approved an overhaul of the Rural Health Care Program by providing for the program’s $150 million cap on multiyear and upfront payment requests to be adjusted annually for inflation.
Last June, the FCC increased the annual cap on overall program spending from $400 million to $571 million, which reversed across-the-board spending cuts imposed by old caps.
Earlier this week, around a dozen Republican and Democratic Senators sent a letter to Pai, saying he needs to address the adequacy of funding in the RHC program and clarify program requirements.
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