FCC starts fixing broken method of measuring internet access

As the pandemic rages on, the FCC took its first steps to overhaul its heavily criticized system for counting the number of U.S. households without access to vital high-speed internet access.

During a Federal Communications Commission meeting Wednesday, acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced the formation of the Broadband Data Task Force to create an accurate map of broadband access. At least seven FCC departments will be involved.

Having an accurate map of internet access is extremely important. One of the FCC’s priorities is to close the “digital divide” by increasing access to the internet in low-income and rural communities. The issue has come to the fore during the pandemic as students and workers rely on remote learning and work. Without an accurate map to illuminate the problem, it’s difficult to implement a solution.

In 2018, independent organizations and news outlets began shining a light on the discrepancy between the FCC’s maps of internet access, and whether or not people could truly get online. It turns out the gulf between theoretical access and reality was vast. Internet service providers gave their mapping data to the FCC, but the FCC didn’t check its accuracy. The FCC’s own methodologies enabled these gaps. It let ISPs deem a whole zip code covered if one house in the census block had access (as pointed out by The Verge). 

After continued criticism, Congress passed a bill that required the FCC to fix its mapping issues. However, Congress didn’t actually fund the ability to act on that mandate until the second coronavirus stimulus bill, passed at the end of December 2020, which allocated $98 million for the mapping effort.

Task force chair Jean Kiddoo said in Wednesday’s meeting that the task force was working on putting out requests for proposals on the initiative, and declined to give a time frame for when she thought the project would be completed. Her closest estimate was some time in 2022.

But there are already signs that the new broadband map will be better. It will have multiple sources of data, including crowdsourced information and a “challenge process to identify and dispute provider data.” 

A slide presented by the FCC Wednesday about the data sources for its new broadband map.

The FCC under the Trump administration was famously cozy with ISPs. Whether Biden’s FCC will be able to move the gears of government enough to hold them accountable remains to be seen.

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