July 31, 2019
Tomorrow is a big day at the FCC for the future of rural broadband. The Commission is launching the first step in a process to establish a $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Building off of the Commission’s successful Connect America Fund Phase II program (nearly 5.8 million Americans served since 2015 and growing), the program promises to be a cornerstone of connectivity for unserved Americans. Equally important, the Commission will vote on an item to establish a “Digital Opportunity Data Collection,” an effort to improve the granularity of the information available to the agency on broadband availability.
Connecting all Americans to the promise of broadband is USTelecom’s core mission. Logically, in order for us (and the FCC) to declare mission accomplished, we need to know which consumers do, and do not, have access to broadband. As the Commission’s draft data collection item acknowledges, the agency’s existing broadband availability data is “not sufficient to understanding where universal service support should be targeted and supporting the imperative of our broadband-deployment policy goals.”
That’s precisely why USTelecom, along with our partners ITTA and WISPA, and several innovative broadband providers around the country serving rural communities, launched a two-state pilot in Virginia and Missouri in March to demonstrate how the FCC can identify, with precision, the number of broadband serviceable locations in America, where those locations are situated, and which ones presently lack access to broadband. With that data known across United States, broadband funding can be targeted to areas that are truly unserved. The result – no Americans left on the wrong side of the digital divide and an efficient, cost-effective RDOF auction based on precise information, not FCC Form 477 data that was never designed for this purpose.
The good news as the FCC moves to a vote tomorrow is USTelecom and its partners have completed the initial phase of the Broadband Mapping Initiative Pilot. The results confirm there are serious discrepancies with current approach that relies on existing census block level data. Earlier this month we previewed initial findings from Missouri, including that actual structure counts per census block, as compared to 2011 census housing structure data were incorrect as compared to the 2019 actual counts in more than 60% of the census blocks in this subset. The data coming out of Virginia are showing the same limitations seen in Missouri. The actual number of broadband serviceable structures in Virginia are below or above census data nearly 50% of the time. In other words, providers committing to deploying broadband in these (and other) states based only on existing data would truly be deploying in the dark. We can, and must, do better.
These findings validate the importance of the Commission’s proposal to move forward with the establishment of a highly granular data set of locations that need broadband connectivity. The policies that will ensure all Americans have the benefit of broadband connectivity depend on the availability of this data. As we finalize our Pilot (all that remains is final “visual verification” process for a small subset of locations) we look forward to working with all stakeholders on this critical challenge to deliver the power and promise of broadband to American communities everywhere.