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Communications Infrastructure

Policy and Politics

Broadband Mapping — Status and Outlook

November 14, 2022 | Accurate and detailed broadband mapping has long been an elusive goal. Despite the multiple federal programs that distribute broadband dollars, no single federal agency can identify, at the address level, where broadband has been deployed and where it has not. That is why the FCC is currently building a first-ever Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric — a database of all mass market broadband serviceable addresses in the US. That Fabric will serve as the foundation for location-specific broadband location mapping, maps that will in turn inform the allocation of $42B in broadband funding by the NTIA to support broadband deployment in un-served and under-served areas.

Significant progress on the Fabric has been made. In June, the FCC created a production version of the Fabric and made it available to service providers and state and local governmental entities. Starting on September 12, the Fabric challenge process opened — a process by which parties who have access to the draft Fabric can challenge whether the list of serviceable locations is accurate. This process will identify mismatches between the data sets used to build the Fabric and the real world.

This process is essential to ensuring that the Fabric accurately captures mass market broadband locations in communities across the country. As noted, the Fabric is the first-ever attempt to aggregate a national dataset that captures broadband availability by individual locations. The software supporting the Fabric must aggregate and integrate massive data downloads from multiple sources, including address records, tax assessment records, imagery and building footprints, census data, land use records, and other types of location-specific information that has never been gathered by the FCC before. Data mismatches are inevitable. For example, just last week, New York submitted a challenge asserting that there are over 31,000 broadband addressable New York locations that are currently not included in the Fabric.

The Fabric locations must then be squared against broadband availability data to generate maps. To do this, through the summer, the FCC accepted submission of enormous data files from broadband providers that identify the locations at which broadband is available within their service areas. That data will be overlayed onto the Fabric to produce a first draft of address-level U.S. broadband availability for public review.

The FCC just announced that a pre-production draft of the new broadband maps will be released on November 18th, providing an initial picture of U.S. broadband availability. These maps as released will also be subject to a challenge process, and state, local and tribal governments will have strong incentives to challenge the data where they believe it over-reports broadband availability, particularly given that the NTIA allocation method will rely on the count of under- and un-served locations in each state.

How long the challenge processes will take is unclear. Given the complexity of the mapping mission, I would expect there to be material challenges and modifications, and NTIA has said it will wait until the map has undergone one round of challenges before distributing funds. However long it takes, it is time well spent, as precise mapping is a prerequisite to efficient allocation of the broadband dollars.

And, of course, the maps are meant to be iterative, as broadband networks are constantly being upgraded and expanded. The pre-production draft maps released this month will be based on data reflecting available services as of June 30, 2022. ISPs will be called on to submit their updated December 2022 availability data in March of next year.

As the NTIA is learning, it is not easy to effectively manage $42B in government subsidies. But accurate mapping is foundational to that mission. The Fabric-based maps will far exceed the accuracy of the prior census block approach to assessing broadband availability and will be critical to states across the country as they plan for receipt of IIJA Broadband dollars. The release of the draft maps this month is a very important first step to answering the mapping challenge.

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