When the FCC first adopted the new broadband data collection and mapping rules, the FCC had a requirement that ISPs must get FCC mapping data certified by a professional engineer or by a corporate officer that meets specific qualifications to make the certification. The genesis of this ruling was fairly clear – the FCC has taken a lot of flak about ISPs that have been submitting clearly inaccurate data about broadband coverage. To some degree, this was the FCC’s fault because the agency never reviewed what ISPs submitted, and there was no feedback or challenge mechanism for outsiders to complain about the maps – even though the FCC heard repeatedly about the poor quality of the maps. The FCC now wants an engineer to bless the coverage area for every ISP that submits broadband mapping data.
In July, the FCC temporarily backed off from that ruling since many ISPs are unable to find a professional engineer to bless its FCC reporting for the upcoming new mapping deadline in September. The FCC will allow ISPs to get coverage data certified by an experienced engineer for the first three FCC data collection cycles meaning that ISPs must comply with the original order by two years from now.
I think the FCC ruling is going to be harmful to small ISPs, and I’ll describe why below. But first, I want to highlight what ISPs must do for the current 477 mapping data due next month. ISPs still need to get somebody who is qualified to certify the broadband coverage area. Note that an engineer is not certifying the broadband speeds – the mapping issue that matters the most. ISPs have three choices of folks who can provide the certification:
- They can get the coverage area certified by a professional engineer.
- They can get the data certified by an engineer who meets the following qualifications: 1) a degree in electrical engineering, electronic technology, or similar technical degree along with seven years of experience in broadband network design and/or performance, or 2) somebody with specialized training relevant to broadband network engineering and ten years of experience in the field.
- A corporate office of the ISP who has a degree in engineering and who also has direct knowledge of the network design. Note that this person must be a corporate officer and not just an employee of the ISP. ISPs cannot satisfy the future requirement by hiring a professional engineer unless that person also becomes a corporate officer. I’ll have to leave it up to lawyers to define what a corporate officer is, but I’m guessing a CTO is not a corporate officer.
The requirement to certify the biannual 477 data filings is going to be a burden for small ISPs for several reasons. First, as the FCC acknowledges in the recent ruling, there is a shortage of professional engineers in the broadband industry. I think this shortage is a lot more acute than the FCC understands. Big ISPs will have no problem meeting this requirement because these ISPs will meet the requirement with either a corporate officer with an engineering degree or by hiring a professional engineer.
The problem comes from the many small ISPs that don’t have a relationship with a professional engineer. Most small ISPs take great pride in that they’ve built the network themselves without paying for expensive external engineering or consulting help. Small ISPs must be frugal if they want to survive I’ve talked to several engineering companies in the industry, and they have zero interest in taking on new clients who only need them to certify FCC 477 filings. Engineering firms in the country are already working at full capacity due to the explosion of broadband grants and the general expansion of fiber networks. They view helping somebody with mapping to be busy paperwork rather than useful engineering. When the temporary FCC waiver is over, I don’t think little ISPs will find professional engineers willing to help them.
I also don’t think the FCC understands what it is requesting from a professional engineer. The FCC is asking the P.E. to certify that the ISP network reaches everywhere claimed in the 477 mapping data. Engineers are not going to be willing to sign a 477 certification without having done the research to fully understand the network. I can picture that easily costing $10,000 to $50,000, depending upon the complexity of the network. It’s clear in the mapping order that the FCC is counting on professional engineers to do that research – but I don’t think they understand how much this will cost a small ISP. Engineers are not going to certify a network without this research since they are putting their license on the line if they certify a network based solely on what an ISP tells them. As an aside, this requirement gets even more onerous if the P.E. must be certified in the same state as the ISP – some states have a major engineer shortage.
Second, I’m not sure that an engineer exists who can certify a WISP network with multiple radio sites. There are propagation models available that estimate the coverage of a given radio, and the FCC has suggested that those are an acceptable tool for understanding the reach of a given radio. But every engineer understands that propagation studies are largely fantasy after a short distance from a transmitter. There are local conditions like trees, buildings, and other impediments that can affect the reach of a radio that are not reflected in the propagation studies. WISPs usually don’t know if they can connect to a new customer until they visit the customer’s house and try to connect. How can an engineer certify the reach of a WISP network when a WISP doesn’t understand it?
I know that the FCC is trying to avoid the blame it has taken over the years for producing dreadful broadband maps. But in this case, the industry told the FCC why its requirements can’t work, and the agency ignored what they were told. Unfortunately, the FCC didn’t hear directly from the small ISPs – because it never does. These little companies don’t know what’s going on at the FCC and don’t make comments in dockets, even those that matter. For now, the FCC has booted this issue two years down the road – but I can promise that the same issues will exist then that exist now, and small ISPs will be unable to comply with this requirement, even if they want to.