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WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to reform its broadband-deployment data-collection rules. The changes are intended to improve the accuracy of the National Broadband Map, a semiannual data-collection effort that began at the National Telecommunications Information Agency (NTIA) in 2010.

The Commission also voted on a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that seeks public comment on its plan to enhance its deployment-data collection. The agency is proposing adding quality-of-service information and providing additional processes for responding to crowdsourced complaints about data accuracy.

The moves come as members of Congress have expressed frustration with the agency’s maps, particularly when it comes to identifying all unserved rural households. In July, Free Press sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai that documents the need for the agency to make the data it collects under this new approach available to researchers and the broader public.

One immediate change to come from Thursday’s vote is the introduction of a new deployment data-collection process known as the Digital Opportunity Data Collection (DODC). For now this will operate alongside the current census block-level reporting methodology on the FCC's Form 477. The new report will require mobile and landline internet service providers (ISPs) to submit their own detailed “polygon” coverage maps to the FCC to show which specific areas they serve in a census block when they serve only parts of that block rather than all of it.

The other major immediate change involves the definition of a covered area, with the new rules intended to reduce overstated deployment in areas that ISPs may report they “could” serve without an “extraordinary” commitment of resources. And for the first time, the FCC will have a formal process to collect public input on the accuracy of its deployment maps.

Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner made the following statement:

“The FCC has taken a good first step toward improving the accuracy of its broadband-deployment data. The new Digital Opportunity Data Collection process should address the most common complaint about past agency mapping efforts: the potential for overstating deployment in certain rural areas. Free Press has long called for better broadband deployment data from the FCC, and we’re cautiously optimistic that today’s reforms will enhance accuracy while maintaining the public’s full access to this critical information.

“Though this change may produce better data on rural deployment, the new plan wisely recognizes the need to show this improvement before the agency scraps the previous reporting system. The plan also retains the current census block-level reporting methodology and full public dissemination of that information. Maintaining the existing methodology will ensure that researchers and advocates can continue using the FCC’s deployment data in conjunction with the census’ demographic information. That lets us and other researchers monitor deployment in low-income communities over time and track other important changes.

“It also ensures the public can continue to hold policymakers like Chairman Pai accountable when they wrongly boast about the supposed impact of their policy choices, as he did earlier this year. The Pai administration failed to catch a significant reporting error that massively skewed the central finding of the FCC’s annual broadband-progress report.

“Yet the FCC’s proposal today is back on the right track, because it doesn’t take the bait some mapping critics offer. Companies like Microsoft have raised concerns suggesting that more than 160 million Americans are unserved.

“But that is not in fact a legitimate critique of the FCC’s deployment data. This statistic instead reflects the reality that a large number of people who live in locations where broadband is available often choose not to subscribe to a 25-megabit-per-second service. This gap isn’t the result of a failure in the FCC’s deployment data, but instead an indicator that our broadband-policy discussions too often focus on the issue of deployment to the exclusion of the issue of affordability.

“To be clear, the agency’s new approach doesn’t address longstanding needs such as the collection of pricing information, and it doesn't give researchers access to the related Form 477 subscriber data — both of which are necessary to study broadband affordability, quality and competition.

“Free Press has urged policymakers to address these crucial needs for well over a decade and will continue to do so at the FCC and in Congress. The changes made today are an important step toward producing the highest-quality data needed to address some of our nation’s broadband challenges, and we look forward to monitoring this process and using this information as it becomes available.”

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