The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is partnering with California, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and West Virginia to create a better broadband coverage map.
The eight states chosen for this round of map updates were picked because they represent a sample of the broad make-up of the US.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 directed NTIA to update the national broadband availability map using its previously developed state partnerships. All eight states are part of NTIA’s State Broadband Leaders Network, have active state broadband plans or programs, and were willing to contribute data that can be combined with nationwide data sources to give policymakers a deeper understanding of broadband availability.
Updating the broadband map will be a significant undertaking. Critics of the current map say that the data is inaccurate and overstates the level of service currently available throughout the US. Most of the coverage data on the map come from service reports generated by telecom companies on Form 477. This Form is meant to help the government keep track of where people have broadband access and where they don’t, but the standard for service is incredibly low. Companies can report service on a given block even if they only have a single subscriber there or worse, if they could provide service to subscribers there but haven’t yet.
As a result, the map shows broad-based coverage but the reality on the ground is quite different.
NTIA started using Form 477 to maintain the map after the program that created the map and its funding ended. It’s unclear how NTIA will enhance its data collection through state-level partnerships. NTIA says that it will be adding other states to its partnership network over time.
Coverage data from the map is used to determine how Connect America Funds are allocated. Misleading or incomplete data means that broadband funds could be appropriated such that they aren’t making it to areas that need the most support.
Alongside the plan to update the map, the federal government has rolled out what it calls the American Broadband Initiative, a 20 agency effort to expand rural broadband. The ABI will be tasked with finding ways to streamline broadband permitting, expanding the use of federal assets for broadband networks and to maximize federal funding so that broadband service gets to rural areas more efficiently.
The Trump Administration said that the goal of the ABI is to “unleash the free market economy” such that it will expand network access of its own accord. There is, however, no evidence that public telecom companies which exist to maximize shareholder value, were either prevented from expanding their networks or that once unleashed will actually expand service. CivSource has reported extensively on efforts by telecom companies to limit municipal broadband access even where the free market has said it no plan to build. It has also been reported that national broadband providers engage in price/territory fixing to keep competition to a minimum.