Scarce GIS resources could hamstring state broadband challenges
The FCC allows states to challenge its new national map through January 13, but the requirements could be too onerous for those without specialized staff.
The Federal Communications Commission’s release of the first round of its broadband maps has local leaders preparing to challenge what some said is a draft with “substantial inaccuracies.”
The FCC marked the release of the new maps — which it said would have much more granular data on broadband availability nationwide — with a blog post from Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel who said they are a “beginning, not an endpoint” for a “new era of broadband maps.”
Observers said it will be critical now for states and individuals to participate in the challenge process and highlight inaccuracies in the FCC’s maps between now and Jan. 13.
Already, several states have outlined they will be challenging the FCC’s data in bulk, including New York, which identified more than 31,000 addresses that state officials said are unserved or underserved or missing information.
Meanwhile, Megan Gernert, the manager of broadband data programs in the Colorado Governor’s Office of Information Technology, said in an email that her state has already submitted around 13,000 challenges to the location data in the FCC’s maps and is “preparing to participate” in challenging how the map shows availability. Gernert said the state is “utilizing our existing data” from a statewide broadband map it produced “to identify areas in Colorado that may have inaccurately reported data.”
While these and other states have produced their own broadband availability maps and have their own information to tap when challenging the FCC’s data, states without GIS-trained staff could face challenges making robust challenges due to the complexities involved, especially given the quickly approaching January deadline.
“When I look at this map, it's some of the areas with the least resources that are the most poorly mapped,” said Dustin Loup, a program manager at the National Broadband Mapping Coalition. “If they want to get counted on these maps, it becomes a burden placed on them to develop a challenge process … using local resources.”
“The FCC allows for bulk challenges, but they require some pretty detailed evidence … so it's a very involved process,” said Patrick Ryan, senior solutions engineer for GIS mapping company Esri. “I think there's some states that don't have the resources, and those are probably the states that are most underserved,” he said. “So they're going to be maybe [get] the short end of the stick.”
That may explain why several elected officials are encouraging members of the public to also participate in the challenge process. Both Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) released separate statements urging residents to participate. Constituents should “correct information about their location and file challenges with the FCC if Internet services shown are not available at their location,” Latta said.
Ryan said this is the only real opportunity for public engagement on broadband availability. The previous and deeply flawed maps prompted community groups to collect their own data, and states should be “promoting to their citizens to get out there and to look at the map,” he said, especially given the importance of internet connectivity in the modern world.
Others raised concerns about a lack of transparency around the data collected by the FCC, which relied heavily on information submitted by internet service providers (ISPs) on their served locations as well as a variety of location-specific data sources, such as satellite or aerial images to provide information on serviceable locations.
The underlying dataset produced for the FCC is also proprietary with access controlled by its vendor, the broadband consulting firm CostQuest. If the map is to truly provide a “public good,” Loup said its data should be made more widely available in the long-term so communities can use it more easily, especially at the end of the FCC’s five-year contract with CostQuest.
“I truly hope that we build an open location dataset, rather than a proprietary one,” Loup said.
States have been using creative methods to determine which locations are capable of being serviced by broadband internet. Georgia, which was among the first to produce a detailed state-level map of availability, used electricity meter data from the 41 electric cooperatives found mostly in rural areas to identify residences that could be served. Montana leveraged similar technology.
Georgia and Montana partnered with mapping company LightBox, whose Vice President Of Government Solutions Bill Price said with numerous data sources available for analysis, governments must take advantage of everything possible and not rely on traditional methods. “If you've got better data, bring it,” he said.
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