Optimizing Government Data Strengthens Funding Efficiency and Provides Better Broadband Coverage
Today’s E&C Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing examining the significance of reliable mapping data used to identify areas most in need of broadband support — primarily under the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) high-cost portion of the Universal Service Fund (USF). As I mentioned in a previous post, the USF consists of four programs that assist with dependable telecommunications in hard-to-reach and vulnerable areas : rural high-cost areas (the Connect America Fund), schools and libraries (E-Rate), low-income households (Lifeline), and healthcare (Rural Health Care Program).
It is important that we bridge the digital divide for households, schools, hospitals, and local businesses that have difficulty accessing high-speed internet, so they may take advantage of the economic, educational, and quality of life benefits it affords. Internet availability means job seekers can find employment, it means children can do their homework, and it means doctors can manage patient records. Without basic broadband infrastructure, new innovations in communications aren’t even in the realm of possibilities for many Americans.
Under a light-touch regulatory approach, innovation can succeed by leveraging broadband infrastructure deployment leadership in the private sector, while programs like the USF can help close the gaps where the market is not succeeding. There are certain areas that are hard to reach — due to difficult geography and/or population density — where it is unfeasible for private businesses to make an adequate return because the deployment cost-per-home is too high.
This is where the importance of a robust public-private partnership comes into play to effectively administer and maximize the use of existing federal dollars. Ensuring that the federal government has the most accurate data illustrating coverage areas enables agencies to make optimal funding decisions for programs meant to aid locations that are truly lacking broadband services. It is critical that existing federal funds stabilize broadband coverage disparities, but avoid overbuild in duplicative efforts or misallocation of hard-earned taxpayer money.
The first key challenge in creating better broadband coverage maps is that the unit of measurement used to collect data by the FCC is based upon census blocks — and if one household is served in that census block, the entire block is listed as receiving broadband service. This leads to maps overstating broadband coverage in certain instances, meaning that areas truly unserved may never receive the assistance needed from the USF. Furthermore, the FCC’s data collection is collected twice a year and can quickly become outdated on this timetable. Additionally, without a uniform manner for reporting a company’s broadband coverage information, there are concerns that this information isn’t reported as precisely as is possible. It also is imperative that federal agencies coordinate aggregated data in order to harmonize multiple broadband programs — meaningfully providing for increased access to broadband services, without administering funds in a redundant approach.
Using enhanced data sets, existing federal funds can be better targeted to areas meeting reasonable “no service” eligibility, while minimizing objections through challenge processes when networks believe the FCC may have “missed a spot.” That said, the FCC has been working diligently to conduct comprehensive challenge processes addressing its decisions on what comprises eligible areas for USF funding. Yet, policymakers have an essential role promoting a more standardized, efficient, and timely manner in which broadband coverage data is collected by the FCC. I look forward to working with my colleagues on E&C’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee to achieve commonsense measures that accurately identify and target support to unserved and underserved areas needing accelerated broadband deployment, whether in Montgomery County or across the country.