Broadband Mapping Bill Leads to White House

Lawmakers send the Broadband Data Improvement Act to the White House for President Bush's signature. Broadband mapping bill would require the Federal Communications Commission to change the way it counts deployment of high-speed Internet services and calls for ambitious plan to measure the gaps in U.S. broadband coverage. Legislation also calls for matching funds for public-private partnerships working on broadband deployment projects.

Democrats finally got a plank of their "innovation agenda" through Congress and Sept. 30 sent the Broadband Data Improvement Act (S. 1492) to the White House for President Bush's signature. The bill requires the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to revise its method for counting U.S. broadband subscribers as a first step in determining who has broadband and at what speed and price.

Under the legislation, the FCC would be required to revise the agency's definitions of broadband service and to identify tiers of broadband service in which most connections can reliably transmit full-motion, high-definition video. In addition, the bill requires the FCC to revise reporting requirements to allow the FCC to identify actual numbers of broadband connections by customer type and geographic area.

The bill also calls for a $40 million matching grant program for public-private partnerships working on broadband deployment projects.

"Greater broadband deployment and usage means more jobs and economic growth," Peter Davidson, Verizon senior vice president of federal government relations, said in a statement. "There is no single entity or one-size-fits-all formula to get broadband to everyone. Once we determine where the broadband gaps are, these groups can work together to fill them and get everyone online."

For years, the FCC's broadband reports have been widely criticized for overstating U.S. broadband penetration and presenting an overly optimistic national picture of broadband deployment, particularly in rural areas.

In the last decade, broadband suppliers only had to give the FCC the number of subscribers an ISP had in a ZIP code. If a ZIP code had at least one subscriber, the FCC counted that ZIP code as being served by a broadband provider.

The methodology has been criticized on all sides, including by the Government Accountability Office, as poorly reflecting the true rate of broadband penetration.

Responding to pressure from lawmakers and public advocacy groups, the FCC June 13 approved rules to require broadband providers to report the number of subscribers in a census track in addition to subscribers in a ZIP code.

The providers will also for the first time be required to report on the speeds of the broadband service provided to customers. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said the new reporting methods would enable the FCC to better identify and analyze the deployment of U.S. broadband.

Currently, the FCC sets the minimum speed for broadband definition as 200K bps, a speed many other countries do not count as broadband. Under the FCC's new rules, speeds of 200-768K bps will be counted as "first-generation" broadband and speeds from 769K to 1.5M bps will be considered basic broadband.

The final legislation that is heading to Bush's desk closely follows similar legislation--the "Broadband Census of America Act" (H.R. 3919), sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.--which passed in the House last fall.

The House version sought a new mapping method to be used to create a national, searchable map of broadband availability, a provision dropped in the final draft of the legislation. Markey also compromised with Republicans by dropping a provision to redefine broadband as speeds of at least 2M bps.

"While I wish the Senate bill contained the more rigorous data collection and disclosure...that were contained in the House-passed bill, I believe the re-drafted Senate bill, which now includes some provisions of HR 3919, makes sorely needed progress in bolstering the data collection needed for policymakers to have a better sense of America's progress, or lack thereof, in broadband deployment, speed and affordability." Markey said.