Are We There Yet? – Why Accurate Broadband Mapping Is Vital to Making and Measuring Progress

Published by Kevin Noll, Vecima Principal Access Architect

 
 

I live less than 20 miles from Washington Dulles International Airport and what’s arguably the center of the Internet universe – Ashburn, Virginia.

Despite my proximity to the Dulles tech corridor, I, along with 8,600 other homes and businesses in Loudoun County, live and work without access to the modern Internet at broadband speeds. This has been a well-known situation for more than 15 years, yet it’s gone completely unrecognized by those making federal broadband policy and funding decisions.

That might sound incredible, but there’s a fairly straightforward explanation: Internet service providers (ISPs) have historically reported broadband availability data based on census blocks, rather than the number of households that have broadband service. If an ISP can deliver service to even a single location in the census block, then all locations in that block are reported as covered. As a result, the rate of access to broadband Internet is overestimated, and many underserved households are overlooked.

As an example, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Form 477 data shows that Loudoun County has 100% broadband Internet coverage. Independent studies of the county’s broadband services, however, have shown that 8,600 locations in the county don’t have access to the Internet at broadband speeds. Of those that do have Internet access, broadband speed is lagging, with most households running at 15 megabits per second (Mbps) or less – well below the FCC’s 25-Mbps threshold for broadband – and paying nearly twice as much as the national average.

Poor Broadband Mapping: A Far-Reaching Impact

Adequate broadband service is integral to the physical and financial health of populations. It’s widely considered to be one of many social determinants of health – the conditions in which people live and work that can influence health risks and outcomes. As COVID-19 continues to drive school, work and health care online, those who live in broadband deserts are at a significant disadvantage, unable to reliably access these critical components of modern life.

Without an accurate picture of where broadband is currently available and unavailable, millions of households are being left in the broadband gap with no rope on which to climb out. Address-level data is needed to determine which households have broadband service at minimum speeds – and which are being left behind.

Accountability and Action

The good news is that many governing bodies and independent organizations have stepped in to improve the quality of broadband mapping. Last year, the FCC awarded a contract to improve broadband availability maps at the national level. Beginning in June 2022, Form 477 filers are required to provide availability data on a per-address basis or as shapefiles for use in geographical information systems. Additionally, the federal government has allocated approximately $400 billion to expand access to broadband Internet since 2014, and closing the broadband gap remains a priority for the current administration through initiatives like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

But while these efforts are a step in the right direction, further action and accountability is needed to ensure their intended benefits. For one, communication gaps among federal, state and local governments can create confusion around how federal and state funds – intended to support expansion projects at the local level – should be allocated. If we don’t know how this money is being spent, we also don’t know whether the households that currently lack broadband access are the ones benefitting from expanded coverage.

Improvement efforts are also gradual and often limited to small geographical regions. Although better mapping is on the horizon, widespread improvements are likely several months to a year away. In the interim, broadband expansion initiatives will continue to rely on inaccurate maps from census block data or local initiatives that can more readily identify the areas in need of coverage.

Closing the broadband gap begins with uncovering a single source of truth – identifying the individuals and families who live without broadband Internet. Only then can we measure the effectiveness of expansion efforts in bringing underserved communities online and addressing the disparity in a meaningful way.

Connecting Communities

If you’re just getting started on your high-speed broadband project or need support choosing the right solution for the communities you serve, Vecima can help. Vecima is already working with multiple North American operators on greenfield and brownfield deployments of both cable and fiber broadband. Contact the Vecima team, and we’ll help you choose the right path to getting your community connected.