Underberg: A Plan To Get More Missourians Online

Kirby J. Underberg is CEO of Macon, Missouri-based communications provider Chariton Valley.

Maps may be as old as time, but the digital revolution has completely upended the ancient art and science of map-making. Thanks to the power of broadband, we can retire those folded interstate maps from the auto club or the frayed atlases in our glove boxes, and say hello to GPS technology, online maps with street level precision, and smartphone apps that can track packages and people in real-time.

In spite of these technological improvements, the government data used to construct maps identifying broadband service availability has not kept pace. Not even close. In fact, even in 2019, it remains a challenge to pinpoint exactly where broadband internet has been deployed in Missouri, and which homes and businesses it has yet to reach.

Why does this matter?

The federal government uses broadband maps to allocate scarce dollars to communications providers and network operators doing the hard work of connecting consumers to the internet.

When we have an incomplete or inaccurate map, it is nearly impossible for broadband service providers like Chariton Valley to efficiently target communities in northern Missouri that need connectivity the most. A modern, precise picture of service availability is crucial to making sure our company’s infrastructure investments—and necessary contributions from government—are spent efficiently and responsibly.

So, we had a bright idea to improve broadband accessibility: let’s fix the maps.

Working with internet service providers and trade associations representing America’s broadband innovators, Chariton Valley launched a state-of-the art project to reinvent broadband mapping and definitively understand where there is access across Missouri.

Here is the concept: a new single database that will “map the gap” in broadband access with historic precision and combines existing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data with provider addresses, public building parcel data, satellite imagery and public input to create for the first time a new national mapping reference point.

Simply put: this is a serious upgrade to current broadband availability data, collected at the census block level by the FCC, which today counts an entire census block as “broadband served” if only one home or business has service. We know that is not nearly accurate enough.

Our Broadband Mapping Initiative started with a pilot program in Virginia and Missouri, and now, four months later, the results are in.

Here is what we found: there are major differences in broadband availability when you compare the current census block system with our new mapping concept.

The pilot revealed that 38 percent of homes and businesses counted as “served” under current reporting are not receiving broadband from participating providers. In addition, we compared residential structures in Missouri (located using our mapping methodology) to Missouri houses in 2011 census bureau data and found the data did not match 52 percent of the time.

The good news is our plan proves there is a better way to map broadband, but to have a real impact, the pilot needs to be adopted nationwide.

Our industry has collectively invested $1.7 trillion since 1996 to deploy, maintain and upgrade our national communications networks. We have made great strides, but too many Missourians are still waiting to get online.

Broadband service providers and the FCC should not be making investment and deployment decisions using outdated mapping technology adopted almost 20 years ago. We need Washington to adopt this mapping program nationwide so that Missouri consumers get the connectivity they deserve.

This article originally appeared in the Columbia Daily Tribune