History of Broadband Mapping

The history of broadband mapping is just a blip on the telecommunications timeline, but it’s an important one to explore. With advancements in data over time, Broadband Mapping continues to improve. Data science, network planning tools, and geospatial information systems have grown to better support decision-making for broadband initiatives. The FCC has intended to display where broadband is and is not available.

However, critics tend to brand past efforts as “GIGO” (garbage in, garbage out) to highlight flaws in reporting requirements and its resulting maps. Looking forward to the Broadband Data Collection (BDC, formerly DODC) and implementing the Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric, let’s quickly review how we got here.

First Interaction with Data in Broadband Mapping

After college, my first “real job” was with McCaw Cellular, which was when I started to work with data. At the time, Jim Barksdale was the CEO who later went on to be the CEO of Netscape, delivered quite possibly the best quote ever regarding data. He said, “If we have data, let’s look at data. If we all have our opinions. Let’s go with mine.”

The Telecom Act and Big Geographies: 1996-2009

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 gave us data and structure around things like interconnection, preemption, and universal service. The Act called for the FCC to collect broadband availability data on a semi-annual basis, which led to the birth of the FCC’s Form 477 process. This process was a mechanism the FCC would use to collect and report on broadband service availability.

In 1996, the definition of broadband was 200Kbps download, which was the perfect speed for using Jim Barksdale’s Netscape browser. As the Form 477 results started rolling out in the early 2000s, there was some satisfaction seeing what counties and census tracts had service at 200 Kbps. The problem was that having data on broadband service availability at the census tract level was pretty much like having no data at all. Whether made by service providers for network planning or by policymakers and regulators who may provide public funding, decisions on broadband deployment are made below the census tract level.

Census Geography Chart, Broadband Mapping.
Figure 1. Understanding Census Bureau Geographic Entities

As a frame of reference on Census Geography, census tracts can contain as many as 8,000 people and span many square miles, while a census block can have as little as a zero population and be as small as 2/3rd of an acre. For specific purposes, having data at this macro-level of geography allowed policymakers and regulators to make decisions using the Barksdale Principle: opinions.

Stimulus, the National Broadband Map, and CAF: 2009-2015

2009 brought us, among other things, Google’s Chrome Browser. That was also the year that the FCC started moving toward a 4Mbps broadband definition. You could use your Chrome browser to find where to buy Shake Weights (also introduced in 2009) or view the nutritional value of Hot Pockets, which expanded its market beyond college dorm rooms thanks to the Recession.

The economic downturn in 2009 led to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The ARRA provided funding and limited guidance to produce broadband maps. Companies like CostQuest and Connected Nation had already performed statewide broadband maps for Wyoming (2005) and Kentucky (2005), respectively. These programs started to help define the direction of broadband mapping.

Congress and the FCC leveraged that guidance and worked to build the National Broadband Map. The goal was to collect data, standardize it, and display it at the census block level. Unfortunately, the Barksdale Principle came back into play. The timing of getting out data and maps on broadband availability did not mesh with the need to get stimulus (Broadband Technology Opportunity Program grants, or “BTOP”) funds out quickly. It left policymakers and grantors with little data and lots of opinions on where to fund broadband build-out.

The Connect America Fund (CAF) was introduced in 2011. CAF was a reformation of the Universal Service Fund and relied very much on broadband data and the National Broadband Map results and related efforts. Continual improvement of broadband mapping brought about better modeling of costs to build to unserved areas. It allowed fund size and targeting decisions to be made with actual data driving them. This process led to more efficient public funds spending and a better public understanding of where broadband was and was not available. The Barksdale Principal data-opinion ratio moved in a positive direction.

CAF-II, RDOF, and Location-Based Mapping: 2015 – 2021

The year was 2015, and the FCC bumped the definition of broadband to 25Mbps down/3Mbps up. We could jump on our Microsoft Edge browser at very high speeds and find out the PSI of Tom Brady’s footballs in 2015. By this time, the census block-level data had contributed to the Connect America Fund moving to a reverse auction. Identifying eligible census blocks and reserves were measured using this more granular approach to broadband mapping. By most standards, the continual improvements in broadband mapping had yielded at least some measure of success. However, not unlike Tom Brady’s footballs, there was some deflation among those who built the networks and the public that needed bandwidth — indicating that the data was not accurate enough.

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) was introduced not long after CAF-II was awarded and mostly expended. The first phase of RDOF relied on similar data and processes from CAF; however, the deflated murmurs of dissatisfaction had led to a focus on improving broadband mapping. In 2018, CostQuest, US Telecom, and other Broadband Mapping Initiative (BMI) members [link to US Telecom BMI site]worked to find a path to better data. CostQuest developed the Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric to bring broadband mapping to the actual location of structures – places that are candidates for broadband service. This development made its way to the halls of Congress.

Broadband Mapping - mapping rooftop locations using the Broadband Fabric.
Figure 2. A sample from the BMI showing the identification of broadband serviceable structures – Source: CQA

Where Broadband Mapping is Going

The Broadband DATA Act (more on this in a future article) was passed in March of 2020 and included requirements for the FCC to use specific data collection standards and structure-level mapping. The FCC’s Digital Opportunity Data Collection, renamed to Broadband Data Collection (BDC) program in March 2021, will look to build on the Form 477 program and broadband mapping going forward. The ability to view broadband availability, speeds, technology below the census block level will further improve broadband maps.

Will this lead to less reliance on the Barksdale Principle of decision-making? It’s not yet time to celebrate. There’s still a GIGO factor and still some garbage in there. There’s also garbage in Hot Pockets, but they’re pretty darn good.

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