Tech Overlook

It’s time for a new approach for mapping broadband data to better serve Americans – Microsoft on the Issues


Every day, our world becomes a little more digital. But reaping the benefits of this digital world – pursuing new educational opportunities through distance learning, feeding the world through precision agriculture, growing a small business by leveraging the cloud, and accessing better healthcare through telemedicine – is only possible for those with a broadband connection, a link not available to at least 25 million people, 19 million of whom live in this country’s rural areas, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

This lack of connectivity has a very real impact on economic well-being.  There are at least six independent studies that show that broadband has a direct impact on jobs and GDP growth.  Our analysis shows that the counties with the highest unemployment also have the lowest broadband usage (and broadband access).

US map of broadband usage by state

Despite the importance of this issue, we are not making very much progress in closing the broadband gap. In the past five years, there’s been more than $22 billion in subsidies and grants to carriers to sustain, extend and improve broadband in rural America. But adoption has barely budged.

This Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee will explore one of the reasons progress has lagged – a continued reliance on inaccurate broadband mapping data that vastly undercounts the number of Americans without access to broadband. This has been an area of concern for some time, and below we have outlined the issues with the current approach to broadband mapping and steps the Senate, and ultimately the FCC, could take to resolve them.

The government’s most current broadband statistics come from the FCC and suggest 25 million Americans lack access to a broadband connection. There’s strong evidence, though, that the percentage of Americans without broadband access is much higher than the figures reported by the FCC.

Getting these numbers right is vitally important. This data is used by federal, state and local agencies to decide where to target public funds dedicated to closing this broadband gap. That means millions of Americans already lacking access to broadband have been made invisible, substantially decreasing the likelihood of additional broadband funding or much needed broadband service.

We’ve seen this in the past year, in many places and in many ways, including talking directly to the people who live in rural America as part of our Airband Initiative work to expand rural connectivity. We examined other data sources, including Pew Research and the FCC’s own subscription data, that show far lower usage rates than the 92 percent access reported by the FCC.

Two US maps showing broadband access
Maps showing large differences of broadband access vs. actual usage of broadband.

This led us to explore this issue ourselves. Using anonymized data that we collect as part of our ongoing work to improve the performance and security of our software and services, we found that 162.8 million people are not using the internet at broadband speeds. Our results align well with the FCC’s broadband subscription data and the Pew Research numbers, which suggests these data sets are far closer to the mark then the broadband access data reported by the FCC and leaves us with the unescapable conclusion that today there exists no accurate, comprehensive and public estimate of broadband coverage in the United States.

In our home state of Washington, the FCC data indicates that 100 percent of Ferry County residents have access to broadband. When we spoke to local officials, they indicated that very few residents in this rural county had access and those that did were using broadband in business. Our data bears this out, showing that only 2 percent of Ferry County is using broadband.

There is a Ferry County in every state. In Mississippi, the FCC indicates that broadband is available to 97.1 percent of people in Tishomingo County, while our data shows that only 3.6 percent of the county uses the internet at broadband speeds. This is not just a rural issue, either. In more urban states, like Massachusetts, the issue persists. The FCC indicates that broadband is available to 86.3 percent of the people in Berkshire County, while our data shows that 39.4 percent of the county is using the internet at broadband speeds.

These significant discrepancies across nearly all counties in all 50 states indicates there is a problem with the accuracy of the access data reported by the FCC. Additional data sources like ours, as well as work by others to examine data in a few states or regions, are important to understanding the problem. But this problem cannot be solved by more or different data alone.

There are two fundamental problems with the data used for broadband mapping right now.

  1. The request on the form the FCC uses to collect broadband data is too broad. Form 477 is the primary tool used to collect data on broadband deployment. Right now, this form asks providers if they are “providing or could without an extraordinary commitment of resources provide broadband service to an area.” If the answer is yes to either question, the area is considered covered – meaning many places are counted as covered that have no access and providers have no plans to provide it any time soon.
  2. The lack of location specificity poses challenges. The FCC data is based on census blocks, the smallest unit used by the U.S. Census Bureau – though in rural areas, these blocks can be quite large. If broadband access is delivered to a single customer in that block, the entire block is counted as having service. We must be able to count those within the census block who are unserved.

We commend Chairman Roger Wicker, Ranking Member Maria Cantwell, and all the members of the Commerce Committee for their active oversight and leadership on this issue and recommend three actions the committee could take to encourage the FCC to more quickly close the broadband gap:

  1. Remove “could provide” from the question in Form 477. We should measure actual progress, not hypothetical progress, and make funding decisions on real access data.
  2. Use both availability and actual usage (and/or subscription data) to guide investments and communicate progress moving forward. Both access and usage data sets are critically important in building a full and accurate broadband map, as access data shows the current and near-future plans and usage data helps us understand how access translates into service and verification of the availability of broadband.
  3. Fix the availability data collection and reporting challenges prior to releasing a new report on broadband mapping. Our data science team has reviewed the draft report from the FCC and compared it to our latest usage data. We found that the increase in access reported in that draft document has not translated into broadband usage growth, especially in rural areas. This demonstrates the need to make significant adjustments to methodology prior to release.

We’re encouraged by productive conversations we’ve had with many members of the Commerce Committee, as well as other members of Congress, the administration and the FCC who understand the problem and have a shared desire to provide better connectivity for all Americans. We stand ready to assist in whatever way we can, and look forward to continuing our work, both through partnering with the public sector and with providers through our Airband Initiative, to close the broadband gap, quickly.

Learn more about our data here: https://news.microsoft.com/rural-broadband/

 

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