Better Mapping to Bridge the Digital Divide

By: Katie McAuliffe

The FCC estimates that out of a population of nearly 330 million, only  19 million Americans—about 6% of our population—lack access to high speed internet. The lack of access is most highly concentrated in rural areas, where about one-fourth of rural populations are without high-speed fixed internet. Congress and the FCC are making strides to close the digital divide and connect all Americans. As employment and educational opportunities shift to the internet, their work is more important than ever.

When allocating Universal Service Fund support to underserved areas, the FCC relies on geographic mapping of broadband availability. The inaccuracy of existing maps makes efficient allocation difficult; providers and regulators need a clear picture of the levels of service coverage. This allows them to more efficiently target Congressionally mandated dollars to unserved populations before considering whether underserved areas should receive funding. Fortunately, efforts are underway to improve broadband mapping.

The Broadband DATA Act, introduced by Senator Wicker (R-Miss.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and signed by President Trump in March, requires the FCC to collect and disseminate granular broadband availability data and to establish a process for verifying the data’s accuracy. The bill also ratifies the FCC’s decision to use shapefile data, which will allow for more accurate mapping information. Geographic broadband mapping shows internet providers and the FCC where service is most needed. 

Programs like the Universal Service Fund aim to bring internet access to unconnected areas, but without accurate information about availability, these programs may neglect areas with serious need while wasting taxpayer dollars on areas that should not qualify for the program. If government funds are to be used to connect Americans, the approach must be informed by accurate mapping data.

The FCC will vote on its plan for implementing the Broadband DATA Act in July. In the meantime, Congress needs to allocate $65 million to pay for the project.  

More recently, the Energy and Commerce Committee released a package of 26 bills aimed at streamlining broadband development, including the Federal Broadband Deployment in Unserved Areas Act. Introduced by John Curtis (R-Utah), the bill would integrate FCC mapping data with the USDA and Department of the Interior in order to locate federal lands suitable for broadband deployment. This legislation would allow the Department of the Interior to view FCC mapping data to show Federal property that can support communications facilities in unserved areas. 

This flurry of legislation addressing disparities in broadband availability reflects an important shift of focus within Congress. Legislators are taking the digital divide seriously, enabling the FCC and other institutions to create meaningful, targeted solutions. Rather than a scatter shot, these efforts to improve our broadband mapping capabilities will ensure that taxpayer dollars are used as efficiently as possible while expanding service to communities most in need of connection. 

Photo credit: Nenad Stojkovic