broadband cable (alphaspirit/

Rural broadband push highlights long-standing data issues

Few would dispute the benefits broadband internet brings to education, economic development, health care, government services and consumers. Delivering broadband to those constituencies in rural areas, however, has been a longstanding issue that's getting some renewed attention.

Part of the problem is that high deployment costs limit the financial incentives to install equipment in rural areas. To ease that issue, the Trump administration has called on federal agencies to improve rural access to broadband.

A Jan. 9 executive order calls for the General Services Administration to develop a common application form and master contract that agencies could use for companies that want to locate broadband facilities or equipment on federal land and rooftops. With an improved form, agencies could process the siting requests “more efficiently” and add “predictability regarding the availability of asset locations,” according to the order.

A Jan. 8 memo similarly directed the secretary of the Department of the Interior to increase access to towers and other infrastructure assets it manages in support of rural broadband expansion.

As the administration rolls back such right-of-way restrictions, however, fundamental issues still exist around determining the size of the digital divide. Broadband providers are required to biannually file a Form 477 to the Federal Communications Commission where they detail services, technologies used and speeds available by census block, but the data is provided in a mostly raw form that makes it difficult to interpret.

In August 2016, the FCC issued a proposed rule to streamline and modernize Form 477 to ensure it gets "accurate and reliable data on fixed and mobile broadband and voice services" so that the commission, Congress, state and local policy makers, researchers and consumers can make decisions based "on sound and rigorous data analysis."

In Jan. 3 comments to the FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration called for improvements to the Form 477 data collection process by validating the data from providers, streamlining a data correction mechanism and clarifying the definition of a “served” area.

NTIA also recommended updating the National Broadband Map with the latest Form 477 data and supplementing mapping and other visualization tools with sample code that shows how the FCC analyzes the raw datasets.

Launched in 2011, the National Broadband Map attempted to address to accessibility of the broadband availability data by providing an interactive and searchable tool, but the map's data has not been updated since June 2014.

"Sophisticated intuitive” tools would make it easier for a wide range of interested parties to turn raw datasets into a usable formats, NTIA said in its comments.

When it comes to increasing the granularity of the data, NTIA suggested limiting the requirement for sub-block data in census blocks that are larger than two square miles, which would “substantially reduce the resulting burden on providers.” Only two percent of Census blocks in the United States exceed two square miles in land area.

“Data from Form 477 form a critical piece of the larger Federal broadband data puzzle, and we hope our recommendations will influence enhancements that drive cutting-edge research and data-driven policymaking aimed at enabling all Americans to fully participate in the digital economy,” John Morris, associate administrator of NTIA’s Office of Policy Analysis and Development, wrote in a blog post.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.

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