AT&T’s fix for the broadband mapping problem? Get everyone’s address

FCC map on digital divide and rural broadband (Microsoft)
Microsoft has offered a general map based on FCC data on the digital divide and rural broadband. (Microsoft)

Federal telecom regulators have a well-documented problem: They don’t know where telecommunications services are, exactly.

But AT&T is proposing a potential solution to this problem. And it’s a solution that involves one big element: Get everyone’s address.

“While it may seem logical to map where broadband is available in order to determine where it is lacking, collecting data only on deployed areas does not provide the information necessary to effectively promote deployment to areas that still have no broadband,” AT&T wrote to the FCC in describing its new proposal. “To support the deployment of broadband to unserved areas, it is also necessary to have detailed information about the locations of homes and businesses in those areas. As AT&T and others have found, this type of information is not readily available, but it is critical to accurately estimating the cost of deployment, designing efficient networks, and assessing when adequate deployment has been achieved.”

Specifically, AT&T argued that the FCC should consider “an address-based approach to fill the data gaps. The result of the approach we proposed would be a data source that enables the Commission and other policy makers to more accurately target and direct funding to the communities and locations that do not have broadband.”

That’s critical considering the FCC’s $4.5 billion Mobility Fund Phase II is designed to provide government money to private wireless carriers so that they will deploy wireless services in rural areas, but before any money can be allocated, the FCC must first figure out which areas in the United States need wireless coverage.

In its filing with the FCC, AT&T laid out a lengthy process that the operator said would ultimately result in a map containing every address in the country as well as what kind of telecom service was available at that address.

First, AT&T said that all telecom operators should submit whatever street address information they have to the FCC, data that would then be supplemented with data from public resources and a crowd-sourcing campaign. (AT&T noted that the data would need to remain confidential.) Then the FCC should identify the latitude and longitude for each street address in the master address database, and then it should allow consumers to improve the database by adding their own data.

“Consumers who live in areas unserved by broadband could be encouraged to make sure their location information is in the database and add it if it is not. Consumers with access to handheld GPS devices should also be allowed to submit more accurate latitude and longitude data,” AT&T said.

Finally, fixed and wireless telecom operators would “submit data that ‘overlays’ the foundational address data to identify areas where they currently can provide broadband service, including the technology and speed.”

AT&T, in its filing, conceded that the proposal is a tall order: “We also readily acknowledged that exactly how carriers would submit or report their broadband service availability is a topic that requires more discussion. The solution will depend to a large degree on the design and technology platform of the address database and once that is known, a further proceeding may be warranted.”

AT&T’s new proposal is essentially an alternative to a proposal to map broadband availability by “road segments.” AT&T argued that “the major flaw in the road segment proposal … is that the result would not provide information that could be used to solve the rural unserved broadband problem. A road segment database would display the roads where broadband is available, but it would not provide any information on the locations and characteristics of areas that are unserved.”

RELATED: Editor’s Corner—The Sisyphean task of finding and measuring wireless coverage

AT&T is one of a wide number of entities working to improve federal telecom regulators’ broadband availability map. Already, some U.S. senators are raking FCC officials over the coals for not moving quickly enough to address the issue. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., for example, said recently that the current FCC coverage maps "stink" because they show coverage where there is none.

Shortly after AT&T filed its proposal for an address-based approach to telecom availability, the cable industry’s trade group, the American Cable Association, blasted the proposal as unworkable. “ACA representatives explained that collecting and reporting data by individual street address are fraught with grave problems. First, there is no national database of street addresses and for good reason. The task is overwhelmingly complex because the data set is very large (some 130 million housing units) and it needs to be pulled from multiple sources that have inconsistent collection and reporting methods and formats. These inconsistencies, as well as errors in the information, would need to be resolved,” the ACA said.

Added the association: “Further, the information changes virtually every day and so would need constant maintenance. As a result, the Commission’s cost to produce and maintain such a database would be tremendous, and the process would take many years, assuming adequate resources are provivded [sic]. The second problem is no provider reporting broadband deployment information, including any of ACA’s members, have a complete list of all the addresses that are available for them to serve.”