FCC to vote on proposal for improving broadband mapping

FCC to vote on proposal for improving broadband mapping
© Greg Nash

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to vote this summer on a proposal aimed at improving the agency's data collection practices to gauge nationwide access to high-speed broadband.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said at a Senate hearing Wednesday that he will circulate an order and report that would "result in more granular and more accurate broadband maps." The commission will vote on the proposal at its monthly meeting in August.

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The current maps have been widely panned for overestimating how many people have access to high-speed internet. Because the FCC uses the maps to determine where to devote billions of dollars in broadband investment, the issue has drawn intense scrutiny from people who say they are being overlooked.

Pai said his proposal would require broadband providers to report where they currently offer service. Right now, broadband providers tell the FCC where they could provide service rather than where service already exists, which critics have said allows them to misrepresent the amount of people with access.

The Republican FCC chairman added that his proposal would ask providers to report data below the census block level, resulting in a more detailed picture of who has access.

For years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have slammed the FCC over its broadband maps, at times calling them "fake news" and inaccurate. Many of the lawmakers who are most invested in the issue hail from rural states, where residents are less likely to have access to high-speed broadband.

The FCC's Democratic commissioners have been some of the most outspoken critics of the maps, slamming Pai for touting rural broadband investments despite not having access to the full picture on the so-called digital divide — a catchall term that describes the gap between those who have access to vital telecommunications and information technologies, and those who do not.

At the Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (D) said it is "wasteful and irresponsible" for the FCC to continue distributing billions of dollars each year to build broadband "without a truly accurate picture of where service is and is not."

Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzSenate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA There's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down Advocates hopeful dueling privacy bills can bridge partisan divide MORE (D-Hawaii) asked Pai whether he had consulted with the Democratic commissioners before announcing his proposal.

"I don’t believe any of my colleagues knew," Pai said.

Schatz criticized the chairman, saying, "You just sprung an announcement on your fellow commissioners. I could see in their face they went, 'Huh, that’s interesting.' "

"I had my staff text to figure out if they were as surprised as they looked and in fact, they are," Schatz said. "It is not enough to assign individual projects to members. They have to be in the loop so that you’re working together as a commission."