Communities collect granular broadband data amid wait for better federal maps
Whether gathering address-level availability data from internet service providers or anecdotal evidence from households, communities are working to get a baseline understanding of local broadband access.
As the wait continues for the Federal Communications Commission to issue new maps detailing the availability of broadband internet, states have produced their own data.
Local leaders said during a Sept. 26 webinar hosted by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society that their efforts to provide more granular data come in a bid to better serve their residents and in response to deficiencies in the FCC’s previous data collection process that relied on vendors to submit internet availability and speed data through its Form 477 process.
Eduard Bartholme, senior outreach director at the FCC’s Broadband Data Task Force, acknowledged during the webinar that the agency’s previous data collection method “left a lot to be desired.”
Lonnie Hamilton III, a broadband planner at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s Broadband Office said his agency partnered with Virginia Tech to produce a statewide broadband coverage map, as mandated by the commonwealth’s 2021 budget.
Hamilton said DHCD worked with every internet service provider in Virginia to obtain the data, an effort he said was “surprisingly difficult.” Some ISPs missed submission deadlines, and many others needed technical assistance to help them provide the necessary information. But he said the finished product, which will be updated regularly, will be enormously helpful. It will have nine-month-old data, compared to the FCC data — which is currently 18 months old.
“This map has been really important, because localities have something they can use when they start looking to provide service in certain areas,” said Hamilton. “Before, they had been using … the 477 data, but it takes a lot of work to get from that to something you can actually use to put together for a grant application.”
The FCC has faced criticism over the methodology behind its broadband mapping for years, which breaks availability coverage down by census block and deems a block served by broadband if just one property within it has access. In a bid to revamp the process, Congress passed the Broadband DATA Act, which mandated that the FCC change its data collection methods to show availability at a more granular level.
The first public version of the new FCC map is expected in November, with a challenge period to follow. The new maps will determine how much each state will receive in funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, an initiative funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Other communities have taken a different approach to mapping broadband availability. Shayna Englin, director of the California Community Foundation’s Digital Equity Initiative, said during the webinar that her organization has worked with 40 grassroots groups in the state to collect stories about people who struggle to access the internet.
Englin’s team found people unable to sign up for government subsidies, as well as residences and other buildings that were not wired for the internet. She said that anecdotal evidence has allowed the organization to build its knowledge on where the gaps are.
“If you are trying to serve people very close to the ground, on a household-to-household basis, these kinds of anecdotes start to add up pretty quickly into some patterns that you can see,” she said.
Speakers said there is a long way to go to ensure digital equity, which includes not just infrastructure buildout but also ensuring that people have both digital skills and access to devices so they can take advantage of broadband internet. Biden administration officials are also pushing states to prepare for all the advantages associated with broadband buildout, including upgrades to education, health care, public safety and business opportunities.
“The availability piece is just the starting point,” said Brian Whitacre, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University. “We’ve got to have the adoption; we’ve got to have the productive use to get to that economic development and change the quality of people’s lives down the road.