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WASHINGTON — Last Thursday, July 11, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai released a draft proposal to improve the FCC’s broadband-deployment data-collection rules. These revisions are intended to increase the granularity and precision of the National Broadband Map, a semiannual data-collection effort that began at the National Telecommunications Information Agency (NTIA) in 2010. The full Commission will vote on Chairman Pai’s proposal at its Aug. 1 meeting.

The FCC’s proposed changes come at a time when many members of Congress are expressing their frustration with the agency’s maps, particularly when it comes to accurately identifying all unserved rural households. The chairman’s proposal features some immediate changes to the FCC’s data-collection process, as well as possible future changes the public will have an opportunity to comment on. Free Press sent a letter to Pai last Thursday that documents the need for the agency to keep making the data it collects available to researchers and the broader public.

The main immediate change Pai proposes is a new deployment data-collection process known as the Digital Opportunity Data Collection (DODC). For now this would operate alongside the current census block-level reporting methodology on the FCC's Form 477. The new report would require mobile and landline 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 up for a vote on Aug. 1 involves the definition of a covered area, with 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.

The FCC’s proposal also asks a number of questions about possible future reforms. Such changes could include improvements to the accuracy of mobile-wireless, fixed-wireless and satellite-ISP service maps; reporting on latency by all fixed-line ISPs; incorporation of household and business locations in coverage maps; and more detailed processes on how policymakers can utilize information from crowdsourced complaints.

Finally, while the FCC plans to maintain the current Form 477 census-block methodology, it is asking for public input on whether and how it should sunset the older collection requirements.

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

“Members of Congress, advocates, researchers and everyday people who have long clamored for better broadband-deployment data should be cautiously optimistic about Chairman Pai’s proposed reforms. The new Digital Opportunity Data Collection process should address the most common complaint about the FCC’s current mapping efforts: the potential for overstating deployment in certain rural areas.

“Though this change may produce better data on rural deployment, the chairman’s proposal wisely recognizes the need to show this improvement before the agency scraps the current reporting system. The proposal 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 monitor deployment in low-income communities over time and track other important changes.

“It also lets us hold policymakers like Chairman Pai accountable when they wrongly boast about the supposed impact of their policy choices, as the Pai administration did earlier this year. It failed to identify the BarrierFree reporting error that massively skewed its initial broadband-progress report. Free Press caught that error and brought it to light, and the only reason we could was the public availability of this critical data. And no matter how good the FCC’s underlying data is, there’s a demonstrated need for the agency to improve its analysis of this information — not use it to falsely portray the chairman in a positive light.

“To be clear, Chairman Pai’s proposal 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 and competition. And as some recent studies have suggested, there’s a continued disconnect between the quality of broadband services deployed, and the adoption and actual speeds of those services.

“Accurate deployment data in cities and in rural areas is essential to addressing some aspects of the digital divide, but so is information on price. The FCC and Congress need that and other quality data to help close the largest digital divide of all, for people who have high-speed broadband connections right outside their door in urban and rural areas alike but who can’t afford to pay for them. Free Press research shows that there are persistent racial disparities in broadband adoption, likely owing to the lack of affordable options and other types of systemic discrimination.

“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. Chairman Pai’s proposal is 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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