FCC looks to pinpoint lacking rural broadband service

Federal Communication Commission votes to improve data maps of service areas as well as $20 billion of additional funds for rural America.

JACQUI FATKA, FEEDSTUFFS

Current broadband data and maps fail to accurately determine broadband access and has been an ongoing struggle for rural areas in identifying where more can be done. Moving to better identify gaps in broadband coverage across the nation, the Federal Communications Commission initiated a new process for collecting fixed broadband data to better pinpoint where broadband service is lacking.

At FCC’s August meeting, the FCC commission adopted a long-awaited proposal to distribute more than $20 billion of Universal Service Fund subsidies over the next decade as part of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. This will replace the Connect American Fund II auction for distributing USF money to rural carriers. To date, the first two rounds of FCC’s Connect American Fund Phase authorizations are providing $278.4 million over the next decade to expand service to 97,998 new locations.

The FCC also recognized the “immediate need” to develop more granular broadband deployment data—so that underserved rural communities can focus on expanding local broadband infrastructure to the families, farms, and businesses that need it most.

According to a Farm Bureau study, widespread broadband service could boost the agricultural economy by an estimated $64.5 billion. Broadband connectivity allows equipment like cloud-connected planters, irrigators, tractors and harvesters to automatically change application rates for seed, fertilizer and more. Reliable broadband will also contribute to the health and welfare of animals, according to Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst who recently testified before Congress on rural broadband challenges.

FCC plans to establish the Digital Opportunity Data Collection—a new data collection that will collect geospatial broadband coverage maps from fixed broadband Internet service providers of areas where they make fixed service available. This geospatial data will facilitate development of granular, high-quality fixed broadband deployment maps, which should improve the FCC’s ability to target support for broadband expansion through the agency’s Universal Service Fund programs.

Currently, the FCC generates maps highlighting which geographic areas have access to reliable broadband internet. These maps are used in a variety of ways, including to award funding and subsidies for broadband expansion. However, these maps have been found to be inaccurate and unreliable—and these mapping errors leave many rural communities ineligible for current federal investment to expand broadband infrastructure.

“A lack of reliable broadband internet in our rural communities makes it harder for businesses to attract new customers, students to finish their homework, and family farms to deploy the latest cutting-edge technology. And for too long, the FCC’s coverage maps have made it extremely difficult to pinpoint the areas that are affected by this digital divide, which means the long-term economic security of our rural communities suffers,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D., Va.). “I’m encouraged by the FCC’s outward commitment to increasing connectivity and addressing the inaccuracies within current maps.

“This announcement is a step in the right direction as we work to fix our miserable mapping system, but rural America needs to see more than a press release—it needs to see results. I’ll be closely following the implementation of this decision, and I won’t be afraid to hold the FCC accountable if Central Virginia doesn’t see noticeable inroads toward improved coverage maps.”

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