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Improved broadband maps to deliver more connectivity

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This week, the Federal Communications Commission will unveil the first draft of new, dramatically improved national broadband availability maps. Like almost every map ever made, they’re far from perfect — and new first drafts, by definition, rarely are — but these maps represent an enormously enhanced step toward the longstanding bipartisan goal of connectivity for rural America.

The maps’ rollout may draw a chorus of predictable nitpicking, but short-sighted complaints shouldn’t distract anyone from the real headline here: Federal and state broadband agencies will soon have a sharper image of our nation’s broadband needs than they did a week ago — much less two-plus years ago.

And more progress is on the way, as cities, states, and broadband providers all start the labor-intensive work of checking for errors and correcting mistakes — a “challenge process” I strongly championed during my tenure at the FCC. That means the next iteration on these broadband maps, due around early April, will be even more accurate. 

After decades of relying on maps designed for other purposes, federal policymakers finally have the tools to shine a high-powered microscope on the immediate need: those remaining American families without broadband access.

Congress committed over $48 billion in last year’s infrastructure bill to deploy high-speed broadband networks, while giving federal agencies the clear direction to spend tax dollars only where private investment hasn’t already made fast, reliable internet service readily available. While I didn’t agree with every aspect of the law, these guardrails were a smart, fiscally sound approach — and a sharp rejection of progressive advocates’ push for a more expansive (and expensive) vision of universal taxpayer-funded, government-owned networks. 

But this targeted approach only works if agencies and states have a clearer view of where availability gaps persist and where federal deployment subsidies are absolutely needed. That’s where the new maps come in.

Older generations of FCC broadband maps didn’t offer the granular specificity this challenge demands. By contrast, the new maps measure availability down to the level of individual homes and businesses. Congress and the FCC required every internet provider in the country submit detailed data showing precisely where they offer broadband — and, as outlined by statute, the FCC is now giving cities, states, and eventually individual consumers the chance to throw a red flag and systematically challenge inaccurate data.

I’m encouraged to see the Commission’s bipartisan commitment to collecting this stakeholder input. As long as the FCC maintains a relatively high standard for challenges — such as clear evidence of a service request being denied — and quick resolution procedures, these stakeholder challenges will help ensure the maps get more precise.

Having lost the argument in Congress over the shape of the infrastructure bill’s broadband programs, some progressive activists have preemptively pivoted to sharply criticizing the FCC new mapping framework. Policymakers should be deeply skeptical of these unfounded attacks, and recognize that many of the “improvements” these critics suggest — such as downplaying providers’ submitted coverage maps in favor of crowdsourced data rooted in widely debunked “speed tests” — would unquestionably lead to less accurate maps and risk serious policy mistakes. 

That would also open the door to exactly the kind of wasteful, duplicative overbuilding Congress wisely rejected.

For any flaws that may exist in the FCC’s new mapping initiative — I’ve been respectfully critical of how long the Commission has taken to reach this point — we should all celebrate this important milestone and give credit for the work done to this point.

Winston Churchill famously called democracy “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” We could describe the FCC’s new maps in similar fashion: Despite any imperfections, they’re far more accurate and granular than anything used before.

For rural Americans waiting impatiently for their shot at fast, modern broadband service, the FCC’s new maps are an important step closer to getting infrastructure dollars into the communities where they’re most urgently needed.

Michael O’Rielly served as a Commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from 2013 through 2020. He is currently a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute, senior fellow at the Media Institute, and president of MPORielly Consulting, LLC. He also sits on APCO Worldwide’s International Advisory Council. The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and are not intended to be a submission to the Federal Communications Commission with the intent to influence agency employees in the performance of their official duties in any current or future Commission matter.

Tags Broadband access Broadband in rural areas broadband internet broadband maps FCC Federal Communications Commission Michael O'Rielly rural broadband access

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