TR Daily Affordability Issues Raised at House Broadband Mapping Hearing
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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Affordability Issues Raised at House Broadband Mapping Hearing

During a House communications and technology subcommittee legislative hearing on improving broadband maps today, witnesses and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle supported a range of proposals in five different bills, although some Democratic members and a witness from a public interest group called for ensuring that broadband service is affordable as well as available.

The five bills under discussion today are all bipartisan offerings.

The Broadband Mapping After Public Scrutiny Act (MAPS Act) (HR 2643), which is sponsored by Reps. Bob Latta (R., Ohio) and Peter Welch (D., Vt.), “would require the FCC to establish a challenge process to be used to verify the collection and use of fixed and mobile broadband service coverage data submitted to the FCC by private entities and governmental entities to verify fixed and mobile broadband coverage,” according to a full committee staff memorandum on the hearing.

The Broadband Data Improvement Act (HR 3162), sponsored by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.) and Tom O’Halleran (D., Ariz.), would require broadband providers to report data to create a more accurate and granular national broadband map. It includes a three-pronged data validation process that focuses on public feedback, third-party commercial data sets, and on-the-ground field validation. It would authorize $55 million in appropriations in fiscal year 2020 and then authorize $50 million annually from FYs2021 to 2026 to provide funding for broadband access in rural America (TR Daily, July 11).

The Map Improvement Act (HR 4128), sponsored by Reps. Ben Ray Luján (D., N.M.), Gus Bilirakis (R., Fla.), and communications subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D., Pa.), “would require the FCC, in coordination with National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), to establish a standardized methodology for collecting and mapping fixed and mobile broadband internet service coverage data in the United States. The bill would also require a standardized challenge process to verify coverage data from providers and challenge any aspects of the data believed to be inaccurate. The FCC would be required to establish an Office of Broadband Data Collection and Mapping within the Commission to serve as the central point of data collection, aggregation, and validation. The NTIA would be required to establish a technical assistance program under which the Assistant Secretary would provide grants to state and local entities to assist with data collection,” the memo says.

The Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act (HR 4229), sponsored by Reps. Latta and Dave Loebsack (D., Iowa), would require the FCC “to collect granular service availability data from wired, fixed wireless, and satellite broadband providers”; would require “strong parameters for service availability data collected from mobile broadband providers to ensure accuracy”; would ask the FCC “to consider whether to collect verified coverage data from state, local, and tribal governments, as well as from other entities”; and would create “a process for consumers, state, local, and Tribal governments, and other groups to challenge FCC maps with their own data, and [would require] the FCC to determine how to structure the process without making it overly burdensome on challengers,” according to the sponsors’ press release (TR Daily, Sept. 6).

The Mapping Accuracy Promotion Services Act (HR 4227) (also called the MAPS Act), sponsored by Reps. Donald McEachin (D., Va.) and Billy Long (D., Va.), would prohibit Internet service providers from “knowingly, willfully, or recklessly providing inaccurate data to the FCC” and would subject ISPs that “do submit inaccurate data [to an] appropriate penalty as determined by the FCC,” according to a press release issued by Rep. McEachin (TR Daily, Sept. 6).

During his opening statement today, full Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.) said that the “terrible broadband data” of the current FCC is its “Achilles heel.”

Chairman Pallone pointed to the overstatement of broadband coverage by a new ISP in Form 477 data that the FCC relies on in developing its annual report on broadband deployment, or advanced telecommunications capability, (also known as the section 706 report after the section of the Communications Act that first mandated it), leading to a delay of the report this year (TR Daily, May 1).

He also cited the recent findings by CostQuest—in connection with its work on a pilot project for USTelecom and other broadband provider groups to develop a location fabric on which broadband availability could be mapped—that the FCC’s current census-block-level approach overstates the number of served locations by nearly half a million in Missouri and Virginia alone, according to three trade groups.

And he noted the ongoing FCC investigation into whether carriers intentionally filed incorrect data in the FCC’s one-time collection of wireless broadband data for its Mobility Fund Phase II process.

During his opening statement, full committee ranking member Greg Walden (R., Ore.) said, “I applaud [FCC] Chairman [Ajit] Pai for his leadership on this front [of reaching unserved areas], proposing a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund using cost-efficient reverse auctions to better allocate limited Federal support.

“At the same time, we must ensure that the FCC is relying on accurate and sufficiently granular information when making these decisions. There are areas that we all know are unserved, and sufficiently precise data will help better reach these areas. Too often, the areas most in need of Federal broadband support get lost in the rush to dole out government funds, especially when program rules distort eligibility for some areas that are already adequately served. Without the best available data identifying parts of the country that need funds most the vicious cycle of leaving rural Americans behind will continue,” Rep. Walden continued.

“The Senate has already moved a consensus bill through their Committee to address this issue, which I believe represents an interesting path. The legislation before us today rightly underscores the importance of this issue and the attention it has earned among members of the Committee. There are a number of issues which Republicans are committed to working on with our counterparts—such as how we’re going to provide funding, how to balance publicly available information, how to improve data sources, and how we can best leverage the data to the greatest extent possible across the Federal government,” Rep. Walden said.

He added that there are other bills aimed at addressing “rural broadband challenges, and these proposals deserve consideration as well.”

During his opening statement, Rep. Long said, “For rural communities such as Missouri’s seventh congressional district, broadband access is as scarce as hen’s teeth.”

Rep. Lujan emphasized that the lack of connectivity can be dangerous, as in the instance of the abduction and rape of a girl in New Mexico, when “the Amber Alert system didn’t work and there was no connectivity.”

Witness Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive officer of NTCA, said that “the most important problem we have is lack of granularity,” which she said should be helped by the FCC’s recent establishment of Digital Opportunity Data Collection and requirement of providers to submit data in shapefiles instead of reporting the census blocks in which they provide broadband to at least one customer.

“At the same time it’s important to remember that accuracy and granularity are not the same,” she emphasized, calling for validation of self-reported data through approaches such as crowd-sourcing and a “robust challenge process.”

NCTA Executive Vice President James Assey noted that there are “thorny implementation problems” in adopting more granular reporting that are “teed up” in the further notice of proposed rulemaking that the FCC adopted with the order establishing the Digital Opportunity Data Collection.

“We encourage you to appreciate the significance of data to a specific context,” Mr. Assey said, adding, “We know no map will ever be perfect.”

Grant Spellmeyer, VP–federal affairs and public policy at U.S. Cellular Corp., spoke favorably of a provision in HR 4229 that would “establish for 4G LTE a requirement that propagation maps depict a ‘5/1’ [5 megabits per second downstream/1 Mbps upstream] speed, with a cell edge probability of 90 percent and cell loading of 50 percent.” He suggested that was an improvement over lower percentages used by the FCC.

Dana Floberg, policy manager for Free Press & Free Press Action, called for amending the Broadband Data Improvement Act to clarify that mapping data should not be treated as proprietary. In response to a question from Chairman Doyle about why that is important, she cited verification and research needs.

She also called for maintaining “backward compatibility” of data, which would help make trends easier to see.

Ms. Floberg also said that “perfect maps and deployment” won’t fix the problem of affordability.

USTelecom President and CEO Jonathan Spalter said that the mapping pilot conducted for USTelecom, ITTA, and the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association “proves we can do both: be fast and accurate” with mapping.

CostQuest Associates President and CEO James Stegeman said that “starting from where the pilot left off” completion of a national broadband location fabric would take “12 to 15 months to fully complete.” In response to a question from Rep. Long, he said that national location fabric would cost $10 million to produce.

Chairman Doyle asked about unserved areas in urban and suburban communities.

Mr. Spellmeyer said that someone could “drive five miles [from Capitol Hill] and there are areas along the Potomac River” without broadband access. “You don’t want to have to figure out, ‘Which cell carriers should I have for my trip to Rock Creek Park?’” he added.

Asked by Rep. Latta about making the underlying data on which the maps are based accessible to the public, Mr. Spellmeyer said, “There’s certain information like the height of an antenna on a tower that you would want to keep confidential, but beyond that,” he agreed that data should be accessible.

In response to a question from Rep. Jerry McNerney (D., Calif.) about making the data accessible, Mr. Stegeman said that if the data fabric is created under a proprietary data path, it would be faster and cheaper, but that would not mean data couldn’t be accessed by the public. It would mean that use of the data would be restricted, and parties “couldn’t download the entire data set. “The alternative is to use open source data sets,” he added.

Chairman Pallone asked whether the location fabric could help in network restoration after storms and other disasters. Ms. Floberg said that the fabric “definitely” offers potential for locating outages.

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D., Calif.) asked whether the legislation would work as technology changes. All six witnesses expressed optimism that the legislation would be adaptable to new technologies. —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]

MainStory: FederalNews Congress BroadbandDeployment WirelessDeployment FCC

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