Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been focused on how the internet is everything. When it comes to federal policy governing the internet, the Federal Communications Commission is everything. Among other roles and responsibilities, the FCC maps out broadband access nationally and its maps are used to determine which areas receive billions of dollars in federal subsidies to help build out more infrastructure.
The data used to create those maps, however, is flawed at best. Last year, Congress passed a law requiring the agency to correct that. I spoke with the new acting chairwoman of the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, about expanding internet access, starting with the maps. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Jessica Rosenworcel: If we want to solve a problem, we’re going to need to have the data that helps us solve that problem. And for too long, the FCC has had broadband maps that don’t say with total accuracy where service is, and is not, in this country. And we’re not really going to fix the problem without tackling that. And honestly, the best time to have done that would have been several years ago. But I think the second best time is right now. So I set up a task force that is looking at all the changes we can make in the short term to improve our maps but, also, [looks at] how we’re going to have really accurate maps in the long term. And what’s most important here is we can’t just take in data from the carriers and assume it’s correct. We have to go to individuals, local officials and state officials and ask them what’s really happening in their own backyard.
Molly Wood: It sounds like you’re describing a little bit of a broadband census.
Rosenworcel: I think we need it. When you think about how, as a nation, we’ve moved so much online during this pandemic. We’ve got to figure out how to get this service in a robust way everywhere.
Wood: I mean, one thing that you’ve done is ask citizens to take part in speed tests.
Rosenworcel: Yeah, again, we’re not going to do this all just sitting here in Washington on our own. So we actually did two things. We have made clear that if you use the FCC speed test app, you will not only find out how your wireless services or your home WiFi network is, you’ll actually provide anonymized data back to us that tells us some things, and we’re going to use that. In addition, we’ve asked consumers themselves, “Hey, we’re going to have to ask you where services are and are not,” and we set up a portal on our web page for people to tell us their stories. And we’re going to look at it, try to identify some patterns. I just feel like we have to go to consumers directly if we really want to do this right. We can’t just stick with carriers and state and local officials. Let’s make sure we also talk to the end users.
Wood: What role have telecoms played, historically, in either helping or maybe hindering the gathering of this data?
Rosenworcel: I think the bigger problem has been, for a long time, the FCC has had this really stale methodology for collecting this information. We’ve assumed that if there’s a single subscriber in a census block, then service is available throughout. And that just systematically overstates service. So if you’re in a rural area where census blocks can be large, and there’s service available in the main street in the town, that doesn’t mean it’s available up in the hills. And so we’ve got to really abandon that methodology. We’ve been asking carriers to use that method when they file with us and we have got to figure out a better way forward. So I think that there’s blame in more than just one quarter here. I think we have to change the way we’re asking for data.
Wood: We’re at this moment where there’s a lot of money, all of a sudden, between the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act. We’re seeing hundreds of millions of dollars going to municipalities, and some are using it to increase broadband access without waiting for new federal maps. Is the landscape changing, even as you’re undertaking this effort?
Rosenworcel: Yes, we have a lot of interest in this issue. Broadband has gone from nice-to-have to need-to-have and speed here matters. We don’t want everyone to wait for us to have just perfect information before we start doing real things on the ground to connect more people.
Wood: Are you also thinking about updating the actual definition of broadband, which right now is somewhat slow?
Rosenworcel: Yeah, absolutely. I have been talking about this at the agency for the last several years. We currently have a definition that assumes 25 Mbps down, three Mbps up is sufficient. I just feel like we need to dream a lot bigger than that. And if you want evidence why, just look at this pandemic, right? We’ve all moved from consumption internet to creation internet. We’re in synchronous classes, we’re talking to people, we’re doing more online than ever before. So let’s have bigger and bolder goals than ever before.
Wood: How do you think that municipal broadband could potentially start to change the game? It’s been a fight. There are many states in which there are laws against it. And yet, like I said, there’s all this money and interesting competition now.
Rosenworcel: Municipal broadband has been around for a while in some communities. But in about half of our states, the state legislature has stepped in to put real restrictions on its development. And I just feel like there’s something very American about figuring it out for yourself and doing it yourself in a community. So I hope that option can be more widely available, especially in places where service is not present today. It just feels cruel to tell people that that’s not an option.
Wood: Tribal lands are some of the least connected areas. And last year, the FCC for the first time ever offered a rural tribal priority window during its spectrum auction, letting tribes apply for spectrum before others. Are you planning to do that again?
Rosenworcel: It’s very exciting what the agency did — opening a window for the 2.5 gigahertz band. In other words, we’re going to say, tribal lands, which are some of the least connected places in this country, let’s make available to tribes, directly, wireless licenses, because we’ve seen some really creative things. For instance, in tribal communities in Arizona, where they used that spectrum to connect places that are absolutely beautiful, but really far from commercial services. And now we’ve got more than 200 tribes, and tribal entities that have come in to claim those licenses. I am actually really optimistic we’re going to see some creative work here with fixed wireless in tribal lands. And if we do, we’re going to make a meaningful difference, because there are too many people in Native communities who for too long have lived without the full benefits of the digital age.
Related links: More insight from Molly Wood
We’ll have more of our interview with Rosenworcel on the show Thursday and Friday.
There’s a good breakdown in Slate with all the history of these bad broadband maps, how they affect the federal buildout, and how the effort to improve the data behind them didn’t really start until Rosenworcel took over. It also talks about how you can build all the infrastructure you want, but if it’s too expensive and people don’t sign up, you won’t have bridged any divides or closed any homework gaps at all. And then there’s the speed factor. The piece suggests pairing speed data with pricing data to get a true sense of how much people might be overpaying for their internet access, assuming they can get it at all.
The FCC’s speed app is up and running, in case you want to officially complain about your ping.
There’s also a story from CNET from back in February about three states that decided not to wait for updated federal maps and started building their own: Georgia, Maine and Pennsylvania. And now Georgia, in particular, has a broadband map that’s considered one of the most granular in the nation. And interestingly, the state managed to get ISPs on board with giving address-level data by promising that it would be kept confidential and only used for the purpose of creating maps.
Deloitte put out new research on Monday that actually tries to quantify the economic impact of closing the digital divide, in case all this talk of mapping and municipal broadband feels kind of esoteric.
Some highlights: A 10 percentage-point increase in broadband penetration in 2016 would have led to more than 806,000 additional jobs by 2019. If we’d started earlier and increased broadband access by 10 percentage points starting in 2014, we would have added an extra 70,000 jobs on top of that, plus $186 billion in additional economic output by 2019. And the addition of 10 megabits per second to average download speeds in 2016 would have, all by itself, led to 139,400 additional jobs in 2019.
Coulda, woulda, seems like definitely shoulda.
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