FCC approves plan to improve broadband mapping data

FCC approves plan to improve broadband mapping data
© Aaron Schwartz

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday approved a long-awaited plan to improve the data it collects on broadband access as the agency prepares to dole out billions in subsidies to those who do not have adequate coverage.

The commission voted in favor of a proposal that would require broadband providers to offer more detailed information on where they provide coverage and where they do not. The approach to mapping broadband access will help create more "precise broadband service availability maps," Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said.

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He said the new data could help "paint [the] clearest picture yet of which Americans have access to broadband and which do not."

The current broadband maps have been widely panned as inaccurate and unhelpful, as they often overstate which areas have adequate coverage. 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 — particularly lawmakers from rural areas, where critics the maps tend to be particularly inaccurate.

The plan, the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, will require service providers to report broadband access using "shapefiles," a more precise and detailed measurement. 

Previously, the data was collected at the census block level, meaning the entire area would be marked as "served" even if only one person or business had access to broadband.

"We will no longer count everyone in the census block is served if just one person is served," Pai said.

Under the plan, the FCC will also collect feedback from the public to ensure the information from service providers is accurate.

The FCC has been working to improve its data collection for two years.

The three Republican commissioners voted in favor of the plan, while the two Democrats partially dissented.

"We have a long way to go before the public can trust our broadband data is accurate," Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at the meeting on Thursday. "We have a long way to go before we build the maps we need — maps that are fully rooted in the digital age."

Commissioners referred to the order as a first step, noting there are still a number of unresolved questions over how they will push the broadband providers to provide accurate data and what the broadband maps will look like in the future.