August 12, 2019

Changes are being made at the federal level to improve broadband mapping in an effort to make high-speed internet more accessible to rural communities.

The Federal Communications Commission has announced new procedures that will require internet service providers to provide more granular information on where they offer service, and will end the practice of counting a census block as “served” if just a single home on the block has access.

“This is a positive step from the Federal Communications Commission to acknowledge the flawed processes of census-block mapping technologies that overcount rural communities and leave tens of thousands of upstate New Yorkers behind — and I’m glad to see the commission take a vote to end this practice,” U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-19, said.

The goal is to better pinpoint where broadband access is available, according to a statement from the FCC.

Having more accurate information could also make it easier for municipalities to apply for grant money to expand access.

Dubbed the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, the new system will collect geospatial broadband coverage maps from internet providers, which “should improve the FCC’s ability to target support for broadband expansion through the agency’s Universal Service Fund programs,” according to the FCC.

The FCC will also establish a crowd-sourcing portal that will gather input directly from consumers, as well as state and local governments, to improve data collection in identifying areas where broadband access is lacking.

Columbia County Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt Murell said the data will be more accurate under the new system.

“It’s a positive move to go from census blocks to actual data so they have an idea of who is being served and who isn’t,” Murell said. “It would help us identify where our gaps are. Our local broadband companies, like Mid-Hudson and G-Tel, have been very forthcoming with the county in terms of information and mapping — where we run into problems is with the larger companies.”

Deputy Greene County Administrator Warren Hart said having specific, on-the-ground information on where broadband is available and where it isn’t would be a step in the right direction for local economic development.

“It would be very helpful to have the internet service providers report to the FCC at the street level so we know exactly what homes and businesses are served by internet and which ones are not served,” Hart said. “The county has a working relationship with our local internet service providers and works with individual businesses that are looking to either expand or locate in the county. We have that working relationship, but at the federal level we need funding for broadband that would allow the providers to put together a financial plan to serve those truly remote, unserved areas within the county.”

Under the current system, service maps utilized by internet service providers can overstate areas that are covered. The new mapping requirements are aimed at making that data more accurate.

“The FCC’s announced plan to have broadband providers map their actual service area, along with an opportunity for customers to verify they have service, is a welcome transition from the current census-track mapping,” F. Michael Tucker, president and CEO of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation, said. “While this new mapping process will take time to be implemented, in the long run it will not only document a point-in-time mapping, but will enable more accurate and timely updates to keep maps current.” High-speed internet is considered a vital commodity in today’s marketplace, and the lack of it can negatively impact economic development.

“Broadband is very important to development,” said Karl Heck, director of economic development and planning for Greene County. “There has been significant broadband expansion in the county in recent years. The information superhighway is vitally important in the 21st century. There are still pockets where work needs to be done; most of the population centers already have high-speed internet and we are working on the more remote areas, which is a problem a lot of counties are dealing with.”

State Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-43, said the new system will enable communities to better target areas that are lacking broadband access to bring it to more residents and businesses.

“I applaud the FCC’s efforts to improve broadband mapping and provide for public input and utilize crowd-sourcing with the goal of ensuring the most accurate maps and identifying gaps in fixed broadband coverage that must be remedied,” Jordan said. “Expanded, reliable broadband access is vital for rural communities.”

Gallatin Town Supervisor John Reilly, who is also chairman of the Columbia County Broadband Committee, said his group and others have told the State Broadband Program Office that the census-block methodology was inaccurate; it was used at both the federal and state levels. Providers were able to work with the state “to address some ‘holes’ they knew existed in their own service areas,” Reilly said, but some areas of the county still remain unserved “due to this methodology.”

The new data collection, including mapping and the crowd-sourcing portal, will take effect after the federal Office of Economics and Analytics issues a notice announcing the availability of the new collection platform as well as reporting deadlines, according to the FCC. A specific implementation date has not yet been set.

Reilly said the process will probably be a long one.

“The methodology revamping is good news but will likely be a lengthy and time-consuming process and will be hard pressed to help the governor complete the laudable New York state goal of 100% broadband coverage by 2020,” Reilly said.