FCC Approves Provider Requirements for New Broadband Availability Maps
August 13, 2020 | by Andrew Regitsky
If there is one issue everyone in the industry can agree on, it is that the current broadband availability maps filed in FCC Form 477 are virtually useless. By counting census blocks, that include even one broadband service, the maps consistently overstate broadband availability and miss large swatches of the country that lack working broadband service. Moreover, the maps are not accurate enough to award Connect America Fund (CAF) support for broadband buildouts, keeping vital network construction needlessly delayed.
In 2019, the FCC adopted a new approach to broadband mapping (that was endorsed by Congress in March) when it enacted the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act. The Act requires fixed and mobile broadband providers to submit standardized broadband availability maps and develop a common dataset of homes and businesses where fixed broadband networks could be deployed. Service providers’ broadband availability maps would be overlaid over the dataset to more accurately display working and/or available broadband service. Congress requested the FCC to implement the DATA Act as soon as possible.
In response, on July 17, 2020, in Docket 20-94, the agency released a Second Report and Order (Order) and Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM). The Order provides new broadband reporting requirements for providers, while the FNPRM requests comments on proposals for standardized processes consumers, governmental entities, and other parties can use to challenge the data submitted by providers. It also seeks comments on targeted reforms to Form 477. Comments are due 20 days after the FNPRM appears in the Federal Register.
Although funds for the new requirements have yet to be allocated by Congress, the Commission notes that it is taking its current actions to comply with Congressional time constraints and in anticipation it will soon receive the necessary funding.
Here are the new requirements:
Providers of terrestrial fixed, fixed wireless, and satellite broadband Internet access service must report availability and quality of service data that document the areas (1) where they have actually built out their broadband network infrastructure, such that they are able to provide service, and (2) where they could perform a standard broadband installation. All terrestrial fixed and satellite service providers must report either polygon shapefiles or lists of addresses or locations that constitute their service areas.
Terrestrial fixed wireless providers must report either their shapefiles in the form of propagation maps and propagation model details that reflect the speeds and latency of their service, or a list of addresses or locations that reflect their service areas. All fixed providers must disclose the details of how they generated their coverage polygons or lists of addresses or locations when they submit them.
Providers must submit an explanation of the methodology or combination of methodologies used and how they implemented those methodologies, including the distances from aggregation points, to the extent relevant.
To translate this into English, polygon shapefiles are defined as “a digital storage format containing geospatial or location-based data.”
Mobile broadband providers must submit propagation maps and propagation model details based on minimum specified parameters. Service providers will be required to submit propagation maps reflecting technology-specific user download and upload speeds given prescribed minimum cell edge probabilities, cell loading factors, and modeling resolution. Providers may choose other propagation modeling parameters that reflect their own network configurations, deployed infrastructure, and geographic characteristics of each area. Service providers must submit to the Commission modeling parameters they use in modeling the prescribed network performance standards which will be available for public review.
Additionally, mobile providers must submit information, data, and coverage maps for existing 3G networks and next-generation 5G-NR networks.
As required by the Broadband DATA Act, the Commission establishes a biannual schedule for collection of broadband Internet access service availability and quality of service data. Specifically, it establishes filing deadlines of March 1 and September 1 each year.
The March filing would reflect data as of December 31 of the previous calendar year, while the September filing would reflect data as of June 30 of the then-current calendar year.
The agency directs the Office of Economics and Analytics (OEA) to issue a public notice announcing the initial filing deadline at least six months prior to that deadline, and fixed and mobile service providers must file their initial reports by that initial filing deadline. Providers that become subject to the filing requirements after the initial filing deadline must file data initially for the reporting period in which they become eligible.
While all five FCC Commissioners agree with the actions taken in this Order and Further Notice, the two Democratic Commissioners complain that the new mapping rules will inexplicitly not be used to distribute 80 percent of $16 billion in CAF funds this fall. As Commissioner Rosenworcel correctly notes in her partial dissent to the Order:
If you think that sounds irresponsible, you’re right. Because when a major trade association studied the accuracy of our existing data and maps, it found an error rate of nearly two in five. None of us would ever invest our own funds this way. We shouldn’t be so cavalier with public dollars—especially when they are being spent to solve the digital divide and make sure the future is more evenly distributed. So we have this backwards. We are giving out funding before rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work to fix our maps.