NTIA: We’re working to fix the broadband mapping problem

NTIA's David Redl addressed the CCA show. (Mike Dano/FierceWireless)

ORLANDO, Fla.—NTIA is making progress on its congressionally mandated mission to improve the United States’ broadband map and is working with states to test new approaches to mapping. The agency also expects to issue a request for proposals for additional data later this year and will work with a tech vendor to integrate all the data mapping information it collects.

“There’s a lot going on out there that these [current] maps don’t cover,” David Redl, the NTIA’s administrator, said here during keynote remarks at the annual Competitive Carriers Association trade show. He noted that the regional and rural wireless network operators that make up the bulk of the CCA’s membership continue to upgrade their networks across the country, and that NTIA’s broadband map should reflect that work.

Indeed, Redl said the NTIA has been reaching out to smaller wireless network operators and others in order to collect data that it will eventually use to update the agency’s broadband map.

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He added that the agency is looking to work with an unnamed state to pilot new broadband mapping technologies in the coming months.

As noted by Broadcasting & Cable, the Obama administration funded the creation of the NTIA’s broadband map until money for the effort ran out in 2015. The Trump administration renewed that funding last year, and now the NTIA is working to update and upgrade its broadband map.

The NTIA’s mapping efforts run parallel to the FCC’s own efforts to map out broadband availability for its Mobility Fund Phase II, a program designed to provide around $4.5 billion in government money to private wireless carriers so that they will deploy wireless services in rural areas. Before any money can be allocated, the FCC must first figure out what areas in the United States need wireless coverage.

The issue has already generated plenty of controversy. For example, some U.S. senators earlier this year blasted FCC officials for not moving quickly enough to cross the digital divide and aid the deployment of rural wireless services. Sen. Jon Tester, for example, said the current FCC coverage maps "stink" because they show coverage where there is none.

"We've got to kick somebody's ass," Tester told FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a hearing recently.

Not surprisingly, the issue is a key one for members of the CCA, the nation’s smaller wireless network operators that primarily target the rural areas that are not dominated by large, nationwide wireless network operators like Verizon and AT&T. Many are hoping to obtain money from the FCC’s Mobility Fund.

In order to improve the nation’s broadband mapping capability, the NTIA early this year recommended two changes to the current mapping process; under the current process, carriers and others record mapping data and then they upload that information through the FCC's Form 477 reporting tool. To improve that process, the NTIA suggested the FCC implement a “data validation program” and also make the data available and usable by a wider audience.

And, during the summer, the NTIA accepted public commentary about how to improve its mapping process. Redl said the agency received 53 sets of comments “indicating a variety of data sources and approaches that we can use to support these efforts.”

“Our plan now is to take a phased approach to collecting the data we need to make a broadband availability map that shows the true picture of where we are,” he said recently.

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