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Opinion: Rural broadband a bipartisan concern

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The federal government spends billions of dollars each year on rural broadband deployment, yet millions of Americans lack basic access to broadband services.

Unfortunately, rural communities are hit the hardest and only 65% of rural areas —compared with 97% of urban areas — have access to high-speed fixed service, in what has been described as the “digital divide.”

To help bridge this gap, it is crucial federal broadband programs are using accurate data and up-to-date maps to target the areas that need the funding the most. Two federal agencies, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communications Commission, have roles in collecting and coordinating broadband data.

In 2009, the NTIA launched a state broadband initiative, which brought together states and nonprofit organizations to better integrate broadband and information technology at the local level. Another aspect of this program was to better collect data on availability, speed and location of broadband services. Once collected, this information was imported into a map, known as the national broadband map. This provided consumers, policymakers and businesses more accurate information on what broadband services are available and where. However, data was last collected and published in 2014.

In 2018, the FCC built on NTIA’s efforts and released a new fixed broadband deployment map. This updated map includes data collected by carriers, known as Form 477, which is required to be filed twice a year. Although the FCC took steps to ensure data on availability, speed and location is still collected, that data doesn’t always produce the most accurate results. What users found out is when they would enter their address to search for providers, the results would include providers not in their area. This was because the data collected is as specific as census blocks, which means entering addresses yields results that can span across counties rather than just specific isolated areas.

It’s going to take a collaborative effort to collect accurate and granular broadband coverage data and create an updated national broadband map.

The FCC currently is taking action to improve its broadband mapping efforts and has looked at proposals from several businesses and associations that have weighed in on the matter. Earlier this year, US Telecom launched a broadband mapping initiative, beginning with a pilot program in Missouri and Virginia. The goal of this program is to help fill the gaps by creating a broadband serviceable location fabric through aggregating all locations in the state and identifying their geolocation, which will help identify areas with and without broadband access. After four months, the results were in and confirmed the concept not only works but can be implemented nationwide.

Congress also is doing its part.

Recently, I joined my colleagues, Democrat Reps. Donald McEachin, Dave Loebsack and Republican Rep. Bob Latta to introduce H.R. 4229, aka the Broadband DATA Act, and H.R. 4227, aka the MAPS Act. The Broadband DATA Act will improve the accuracy of FCC broadband data maps by changing the way broadband data is collected and the MAPS Act will help hold broadband providers accountable by making it against the law to knowingly provide inaccurate data to the FCC.

Last month, the Energy and Commerce Committee advanced both bills unanimously, and they now await full consideration before the House of Representatives. They’re expected to pass before the end of the year. I look forward to passing this legislation and working toward a more connected future.

U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Missouri, can be reached at (202) 909-3744. His Twitter handle is @USRepLong.

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