Jonathan Spalter

Jonathan Spalter column: Mapping the broadband gap

The White House and FCC recently announced a new effort to advance America’s leadership in 5G connectivity, particularly in rural America.

To deliver the transformative potential of 5G and other internet innovations, we must scale our communications infrastructure and lay lots (and lots) of fiber, especially in the unserved parts of our country that have yet to realize the full promise of broadband.

Achieving this bipartisan policy priority and accelerating the deployment of broadband to all Americans starts with this important first step: a radical rethinking of our nation’s broadband map.

As I recently told the Senate Commerce Committee, in our hyper-connected digital world, broadband service is no longer a luxury. In fact, it is an essential component of our critical infrastructure and economic vitality, not to mention the health, well-being, safety, and prosperity of every American.

Broadband providers get this. We have collectively invested $1.6 trillion since 1996—$76 billion in 2017 alone—to upgrade, expand and secure our digital networks. Those investments have produced a 71 percent increase in rural broadband access in the last decade.

Even with this progress, millions of Americans remain on the wrong side of the connectivity gap.

Part of the deployment challenge can be traced to a weakness in our federal connectivity strategy: our nation lacks a comprehensive map indicating precisely where high-speed broadband service is available and, more importantly, where it is not.

To change this paradigm, USTelecom has launched the Broadband Mapping Initiative, a bright new idea capable of pinpointing where to direct the public and private broadband dollars critical to closing the digital divide.

Consider how mapping happens today. The FCC collects deployment data from broadband providers by census block. If a provider serves a single location in a census block, the FCC considers every location in that block “served.”

The “one-served-all-served” policy is clearly not a reliable tool to understand broadband availability (especially in rural America), nor does it help identify where exactly scarce federal support for broadband deployment should go.

So how do we fix it?

The short answer is policymakers need more granular information about our country’s broadband gaps in order to design efficient funding programs that get more people online, avoid overbuilding, and track deployment progress.

Broadband companies will literally “map this gap” and create a national dataset identifying all broadband serviceable locations in the United States with a single methodology to serve as a new national mapping reference point.

Here’s how it will work:

We begin with a proof of concept pilot in Virginia and Missouri and will seek to scale it nationally. We’ll gather new digital resources, including satellite imagery, digitized parcel and land attribute data, open source data sets and commercial software, plus existing broadband provider address information to create—for the first time—a complete and full set of broadband serviceable locations in the country.

The hoped-for result? When the new database of serviceable locations is complete, broadband carriers can report exactly where they provide service.

And the places they do not? Those are the specific locations policymakers and providers need to redouble their collective efforts to reach and connect with broadband.

Our mandate is to close the digital divide and expand broadband deployment in our country’s hardest to reach communities. This industry-led national mapping experiment is a bold step in that direction and a chance for all Americans to benefit from the global digital revolution.

Note: This op-ed originally ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. You can view it here.