Broadband Mapping Plan Flagging in Congress

For years, the Federal Communications Commission's broadband reports have been widely criticized for overstating U.S. broadband infrastructure penetration and presenting an overly optimistic national picture of broadband deployment, particularly in rural areas. As the 110th Congress nears its final days, Sen. Daniel Inouye calls upon lawmakers to approve a broadband mapping plan for the FCC.

WASHINGTON-With time quickly waning for the 110th Congress, Sen. Daniel Inouye again called upon lawmakers Sept. 16 to approve legislation to improve the quality of federal broadband data collection. As Inouye put it, "I believe we cannot manage problems that we do not measure."

Inouye, the Hawaiian Democrat who serves as chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, introduced the Broadband Data Improvement Act (S. 1492) in May 2007. Two months later, the Commerce Committee unanimously approved the bill, but a Senate floor vote has yet to be scheduled.

Inouye's bill focuses on forcing the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to change its method for counting U.S. broadband subscribers. For years, the FCC's 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.

"This is not about regulation or deregulation," Inouye said. "This is about getting the facts, because from good information flows good policy. So I hope in the remaining days of this Congress that the members of this committee can work together to advance this bill in the Senate. Together we can look back and say we understood that broadband matters and that we did something about it."

Under Inouye's 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.

"Our broadband state is not what it should be," Inouye said. "Though controversial in some quarters, rankings from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development show the United States slipping down the international broadband ranks. By some measures, Asian and European countries have high-speed connections that are 20 times faster than ours and for just half the cost."

In the last decade, broadband suppliers 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.

The House has already approved legislation by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., which, like Inouye's bill, would expand the FCC's current ZIP code method. The new data obtained by Markey's proposal would be used to create a national, searchable map of broadband availability. The bill also provides $300 million for grants to help deploy broadband in underserved areas of the country.

The legislation is modeled after the ConnectKentucky plan, a statewide broadband mapping effort and community organizing initiative for unserved and underserved areas. The Kentucky initiative has increased the state's consumer and community knowledge of where and what type of broadband is available down to a street-level degree of specificity.

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.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps welcomed the new reporting requirements, but lamented that the agency took so long to change its methodology.

"These reports claim progress that simply did not reflect reality," Copps said in June. "The data lacked a plausible definition of broadband, employed stunningly meaningless ZIP code measurements concerning its geographic distribution, ignored the prices people paid for broadband completely and for years failed to look at what other countries were doing to get broadband deployed to their people."

The new rules fall short of what Inouye and Markey are seeking.