PhotoThe Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted to require internet service providers (ISPs) to better map their coverage areas so gaps in broadband coverage are more clearly defined.

The agency’s ruling concludes that there is a “compelling and immediate need to develop more granular broadband deployment data.” To that end the FCC has created the new Digital Opportunity Data Collection.”

Critics have long charged that the current mapping system leaves a lot to be desired. Although ISPs are required to map coverage within census blocks, the ISP doesn’t have to cover the entire block in order to show it. In fact, in can cover just one home in the area to claim coverage of the entire census block.

Under the new set of rules, the FCC will only report geospatial broadband coverage maps from fixed broadband internet service providers of areas where they make fixed service available. The object is to present a clear picture of where high-quality fixed broadband service is offered.

Consumer input

The new rules also establish a means for consumers to provide input on the accuracy of service on providers’ broadband maps. The feature will use a crowd-sourcing portal to collect input from consumers as well as from state, local, and Tribal governments. 

Over time, the alleged inaccuracy of coverage maps has become a bipartisan issue with Republicans joining Democrats in pushing for changes. According to industry insiders, it was that growing political consensus that prompted ISPs to offer their own reforms.

The change may be most important for underserved rural areas. There has been conflicting information about the availability of high speed internet service in these areas, with ISPs generally claiming more available service than local consumer groups.

In February, the FCC offered to give nearly 200 carriers in rural areas of the U.S. an additional $67 million as part of its Connect America Fund.

Government subsidies

The agency said it would give the carriers the money if they agree to “significantly expand” access to broadband with at least 25Mbps downloads and 3Mbps in uploads. If the providers hold up their end of the deal, the FCC claims that as many as 110,000 consumers across 43 states would have improved internet service.

The move came after lawmakers from both parties took issue with an FCC draft report that said internet service to rural America had improved. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), whose district covers a wide area of rural Eastern Virginia, said in February that nearly 50 percent of consumers living in rural Virginia lacked access to high speed internet and 29 percent don’t have any internet service at all. 

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, one of two Democrats on the Commission, took issue with the draft report that noted significant progress.

“Millions of households -- in rural and urban communities -- have no access to high-speed service,” she wrote in a tweet. “That’s a fact.”

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