Two FCC officials tried this week to drum up support for the commission’s plan to reform the Universal Service program by issuing a map they said “shows with striking clarity that large swaths of our nation are being bypassed by the broadband revolution.”

But some of us might not find that clarity to be as striking as purported.

The map–which accompanied a blog post penned by Sharon Gillett, chief of the FCC’s wireline competition bureau and Michael Byrne, FCC geographic information officer—appears to have been created using the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s interactive national broadband map, originally released in February and updated last month.

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Originally that map drew substantial criticism—including some from Telecompetitor readers. The September update, based on data from December 2010, drew fewer critiques—although at least one telecom web site logged a substantial number of negative comments. Fortunately, the bloggers’ map draws on the more accurate December 2010 data.

The biggest problem I have with the blogger’s map, though, is that it doesn’t relate closely enough to the reforms the FCC is expected to propose.

First it uses a definition of broadband based on speeds of 3 Mbps or higher downstream and 768 kbps or higher upstream—a level that is a bit lower than the minimum 4 Mbps downstream, 1 Mbps upstream speed originally proposed in the National Broadband Plan and also lower than the 4 Mbps downstream- 768 kbps upstream speed recommended by the nation’s six largest telcos in the ABC Plan, upon which the FCC is expected to draw heavily for its proposed USF reforms.

Another issue is that the map color codes areas of the U.S. based on whether wireline broadband is “available,” “under-available,” or “unavailable.” (There is also a fourth category defined as “unpopulated.”) Yet USF reforms are not expected to target areas where broadband is “under-available”—and the bloggers don’t define what “under-available” means.

Presumably it means that some, but not all of the people in an area can get broadband at the minimum speed levels. But it doesn’t say what the cut-off percentage is.

Also, my understanding is that the reform proposal is likely to target broadband Universal Service funding at the wire center level. But although the bloggers’ map appears to depict data gathered on a fairly granular level, it doesn’t indicate whether data was compiled by zip code, wire center, census block or something else.

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13 thoughts on “Latest Use of National Broadband Map Leaves a Lot To Be Desired

  1. Just a quick question – if the underlying data that the FCC uses is flawed, how can they implement a good reform plan?

    1. With all due respect, I don't think we should blame the FCC for flawed data with this map. The map is only as good as the data that was provided. Broadband carriers are loathe to provide that data, so don't blame the FCC/NTIA – blame the folks who didn't provide accurate data in the first place. Welcome to the free market.

        1. Maybe "providing inaccurate data" is too strong a phrase. I think data was withheld and data was provided that doesn't show up in the database, making the end result inaccurate. I believe the ongoing comment string to this post validates this.

  2. Regardless of who's at fault – the data is still not right and they are making very important decisions, based on that data.

  3. Maybe we should not blame the FCC for flawed data but we SHOULD blame them for being so adamant that our policies should be based on this data when they KNOW it is flawed.

  4. I looked at the map and the area that my rural telco (that I work for) serves shows many areas "unavailable" and "unserved" even though we've had 10Mbps download speeds available throughout ALL our rural service area for several years now. I know for a fact that the data was submitted correctly.
    So where does that leave us when the data is correct, but the map is not?
    And let's not forget that there are ISPs who didn't submit any data…or so I've heard.

    1. We have the exact same issue as mikeyb. We submitted the data correctly, and since it was first published we've been working with them trying to get them to show it correctly on the map. There seems to be no concern on their part that it is not correct, and no motivation to fix it.

      1. Since the data for this map is from the NTIA's national broadband mapping program (http://www.ntia.doc.gov/category/national-broadband-map), I'm wondering if you are having trouble working with your respective state mapping entities on this. Which states are you (Jane and mikeyb) operating in, if you don't mind me asking? I work in one of the state entities as their lead mapping person, and I know that we work with each individual provider to look at data producing/depiction concerns, but I also know that not all state offices have that same capacity yet.

        I am surprised to hear that you have had this trouble with whichever agency you have been contacting, and I'm sorry to hear it. I collaborate with a number of other states on best practices, so maybe I could look into this and help in some way, especially if there has been any miscommunication.

  5. I looked at the map and if you believe what you see the central and western portions of the U.S. are terribly underserved. This map is not an accurate representation of broadband penetration in the rural markets. For example take look at Nevada and Oklahoma. Looking at this map you'd think their residents where starving for broadband which is simply not true. The FCC needs a better process to collect this type of information, because the process they are currently using is flawed to say the least.

  6. I work for a rural broadband provider and map is completely wrong for our area. The real problem is the map we submitted to the FCC under the link America project is correct. The FCC is not even using the correct information they were provided. I think they are missing data just to try and make a point.

  7. Another problem is that multiple companies are collecting the mapping data that is submitted to NTIA and they are not using the same collection criteria or systems. We have submitted data for all four update periods over the last 2+ years and the depiction of our available speeds is incorrect. In areas where we have different speed tiers available based on the equipment in place in different neighborhoods, the map shows the entire area at the highest speed. To base USF reform, that will target support to areas that are unserved by broadband today, on this map is wholly inappropriate.

    1. I believe I can help with this one. I work for one of the state mapping organizations that send the statewide compilation of broadband data to the NTIA, which populates this map. And the NTIA is looking for the highest speeds available per each provider and technology type for any given census block, street segment or address. They are not interested in the lower speed tier options available, they only want to know what the highest speeds available are. In fact, they will reject a state's data package if we include a providers' multiple speed tiers. Their required fields for this information are named "Maximum Advertised Upstream Speed" and "Maximum Advertised Downstream Speed", and that's what they expect to get.

      I do agree that including all the tiers will help inform policy related to adoption, but the NTIA is collecting data about availability/accessibility, not adoption (yet). It is possible that your state entity collecting this data is using your multiple speed tier information internally to promote adoption of higher speeds, but different states' capacity to do things like this vary greatly. I'm sure they would be glad to work with you on it, though I can really only speak authoritatively for my own state.

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