FCC considers incorporating mobile data into broadband coverage maps

FCC headquarters
The agency’s move on the mobile front ties into the FCC’s Thursday vote establishing the Digital Opportunity Data Collection. (Ser Amantio di Nicolao/ CC BY-3.0)

The Federal Communications Commission is seeking public input on whether better mobile wireless coverage data should be included in collection efforts to more accurately map broadband availability in the U.S.

The agency’s move on the mobile front ties into the FCC’s Thursday vote establishing (PDF) the Digital Opportunity Data Collection. This is a new process aimed at collecting more detailed geospatial data on fixed broadband deployments to better identify specific locations across the country that are lacking internet service.

In a July 24 FCC filing (PDF), industry group CTIA generally supported the agency’s efforts for improved mobile broadband deployment data, but urged the FCC to seek further comment on appropriate collection methods. Specifically, the group took issue with the agency’s requirement of using a “place of primary use” (PPU) standard to identify mobile users below the state level when it comes to prepaid customers. CTIA said many prepaid mobile providers don’t collect or use PPU information as they don’t bill prepaid customers who pay up front and purchase service at the point of sale.

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“As a result, the proposed use of PPU for prepaid consumer data would be extremely burdensome, if not infeasible,” wrote CTIA.

Accuracy issues

Issues with accurate broadband coverage maps, both wired and wireless, are not new. 

In December 2018 the FCC announced it would investigate whether major carriers submitted inaccurate coverage maps that were to be used for allocating funds under the Mobility Fund II project.

RELATED: T-Mobile, Verizon may be under investigation by the FCC for submitting incorrect mapping data

Before the FCC action today on new methods for broadband data collection, multiple parties had criticized the agency’s broadband deployment maps as inaccurate and incomplete. Critics included members of Congress and commissioners themselves.

“Our wired maps have serious inaccuracies. Our wireless maps are so suspect they are the subject of an ongoing investigation,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in remarks at the Thursday open meeting. “So today’s effort to improve the data collection that informs our nation’s broadband maps comes not a moment too soon.”

Rosenworcel noted that according to the agency’s most recent report, more than 21 million people in the U.S. have no access to high-speed broadband. She said there is reason to believe the actual figure is much larger than the FCC’s official statistics suggest.

“One study has found that 162 million people across the country do not use internet service at broadband speeds,” said Rosenworcel. “That turns our digital divide into a yawning chasm.”

RELATED: FCC revises its U.S. broadband numbers downward after finding ‘drastically overstated’ data

Microsoft, which has been working to expand high-speed internet to using TV white spaces and other technologies, has also criticized the accuracy of FCC broadband data and undertook its own independent research on the topic. For example, in Ferry County, Wash., FCC data showed 100% broadband coverage, but Microsoft data indicated only 2% of households were using broadband speeds.

Following the vote, a Microsoft spokesperson provided the following statement to FierceWireless:

“We’re pleased to see the FCC today take a step forward on improving the accuracy of broadband mapping. The measures proposed around granularity, leveraging crowdsourcing to obtain additional data including usage information and related efforts to improve accuracy closely mirror our suggestions. If fully enacted, this should provide a more accurate view of where coverage is still lagging and enable the FCC to provide funds that ensure the areas that most need support are receiving it.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the newly established method for fixed broadband mapping, which also turns over data collection and maintenance responsibility to the Universal Service Administrative Company, will go beyond current census-block level reporting for a more detailed picture.

“Critically, we will no longer count everyone in a census block as served if just one person is served,” Pai said.

Story updated to include statement from Microsoft. 

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