Wednesday, June 20, 2018

With rural broadband expansion, the accuracy of federal government data is important.

Last month, Senators Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Jerry Moran of Kansas, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi introduced the "MAP Broadband Act," a piece of bipartisan legislation that aims to address perceived inaccuracies in the FCC's data regarding existing access to mobile broadband. This legislation is important because inaccuracies in the data can result in communities being denied funding from the FCC's Mobility Fund Phase II, which will total $4.53 billion over the next ten years. Senator Wicker's office contends that the inaccuracies in the maps will result in communities that need funding to expand broadband being denied. The legislation introduces some additional steps that the FCC must follow in order to ensure that the data is being collected effectively and to introduce more transparency in the ability to challenge the data. As the bill continues to work its way through the legislative process, FCC chairman Ajit Pai has agreed to extend the window for challenges to the map for state, local, and tribal governments, giving them until November 27th to do so.

Given the amount of money at stake and the potential economic impact that it could have, accuracy of the maps is important. The federal government has a responsibility to ensure that communities that could actually use the funding are not unfairly excluded from the process. It is especially important since, as I covered yesterday, $4.53 billion is only 1.28% of the $350 billion (as estimated by Christopher Mitchell of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative) needed to fully expand broadband to every home in this country. When you have every rural community fighting over 1.28% of the funding needed to adequately address this concern, it is important that every possible actor is able to compete for the funding. 

Chairman Pai has said that closing the digital divide is his number one priority. Currently, federal grants to expand broadband are small and scattered among a few agencies, sometimes making them to difficult to actually find. Some rural representatives have championed alternative proposals to solve the problem. For example, Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia's 1st Congressional District has championed the idea that states could take advantage of the provision in President Donald Trump's infrastructure proposal that allows states to spend the infrastructure funding as they see fit in order to expand their state's broadband networks. President Trump's idea is not terrible but rural areas also have other pressing infrastructure needs that would dilute the amount of money available for broadband. 

Before the federal government can decide how to adequately spend its money, it must first know how deep and pervasive the problem actually is. If Senators Wicker, Moran, and Hassan (among others)
are correct then the problem is even more pervasive than we currently think. In the past, I have covered the efforts of New York to expand its broadband network to the rural reaches of their state. However, as I noted then, not every state has the deep tax base and coffers needed to fund such an ambitious infrastructure project. In order to supplement the efforts of the states, the federal government will have to step in, much like it did with the Rural Electrification Act in the 1930s, and supplement the efforts of state and local governments to carry forth with this effort.

The federal government has a tremendous role in the expansion of rural broadband so it is extremely important that they consult closely with the state, local, and tribal communities in order to ensure that their data is accurate and that the communities that need funding actually receive it. The pool of money currently available to address this issue is such a small percentage of what is actually needed that everyone who is eligible to compete for it should be able to do so. 

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