The FCC Mapping Fabric

You’re going to hear a lot in the next few months about the FCC’s mapping fabric. Today’s blog is going to describe what that is and describe the challenges of getting a good mapping fabric.

The FCC hired CostQuest to create the new system for reporting broadband usage. The FCC took a lot of criticism about the old mapping system that assumed that an entire Census block was able to buy the fastest broadband speed available anywhere in the Census block. This means that even if only one home is connected to a cable company, the current FCC map shows that everybody in the Census block can buy broadband from the cable company.

To fix this issue, the FCC decided that the new broadband reporting system would eliminate this problem by having an ISP draw polygons around areas where it already serves or could provide service within ten days after a customer request. If done correctly, the new method will precisely define the edge of cable and fiber networks.

The creation of the polygons creates a new challenge for the FCC – how to count the passings inside of any polygon an ISP draws. A passing is any home or business that is a potential broadband customer. CostQuest tried to solve this problem by creating a mapping fabric. A simplistic explanation is that they placed a dot on the map for every known residential and business passing. CostQuest has written software that allows them to count the dots of the mapping fabric inside of any possible polygon.

That sounds straightforward, but the big challenge was creating the dots with the actual passings. My consulting firm has been helping communities try to count passings for years as part of developing a broadband business plan, and it is never easy. Communities differ in the raw data available to identify passings. Many counties have GIS mapping data that shows the location of every building in a community. But the accuracy and details in the GIS mapping data differ drastically by county. We have often tried to validate GIS data to other sources of data like utility records. We’ve also validated against 911 databases that show each registered address. Even for communities that have these detailed records, it can be a challenge to identify passings. We’ve heard that CostQuest used aerial maps to count rooftops as part of creating the FCC mapping fabric.

Why is creating a fabric so hard? Consider residential passings. The challenge becomes apparent as soon as you start thinking about the complexities of the different living arrangements in the world. Even if you have great GIS data and aerial rooftop data, it’s hard to account for some of the details that matter.

  • How do you account for abandoned homes? Permanently abandoned homes are not a candidate for broadband. How do you make the distinction between truly abandoned homes and homes where owners are looking for a tenant?
  • How do you account for extra buildings on a lot. I know somebody who has four buildings on a large lot that has only a single 911 address. The lot has a primary residence and a second residence built for a family member. There is a large garage and a large workshop building – both of which would look like homes from an aerial perspective. This lot has two potential broadband customers, and it’s likely that somebody using GIS data, 911 data, or aerial rooftops won’t get this one property right. Multiply that by a million other complicated properties, and you start to understand the challenge.
  • Farms are even harder to count. It wouldn’t be untypical for a farm to have a dozen or more buildings. I was told recently by somebody in a state broadband office that it looks like the CostQuest mapping fabric is counting every building on farms – at least in the sample that was examined. If this is true, then states with a lot of farms are going to get a higher percentage of the BEAD grants than states that don’t have a lot of compound properties with lots of buildings.
  • What’s the right way to account for vacation homes, cabins, hunting lodges, etc.? It’s really hard with any of the normal data sources to know which ones are occupied full time, which are occupied only a few times per year, which have electricity, and which haven’t been used in many years. In some counties, these kinds of buildings are a giant percentage of buildings.
  • Apartment buildings are really tough. I know from working with local governments that they often don’t have a good inventory of the number of apartment units in each building. How is the FCC mapping data going to get this right?
  • I have no idea how any mapping fabric can account for homes that include an extra living space like an in-law or basement apartment. Such homes might easily represent two passings unless the two tenants decide to share one broadband connection.
  • And then there is the unusual stuff. I remember being in Marin County, California and seeing that almost every moored boat has a full-time occupant who wants a standalone broadband connection. The real world is full of unique ways that people live.

Counting businesses is even harder, and I’m not going to make the list of the complexities of defining business passings – but I think you can imagine it’s not easy.

I’m hearing from folks who are digging into the FCC mapping fabric that there are a lot of problems. ISPs say they can’t locate existing customers. They tell me there are a lot of mystery passings shown that they don’t think exist.

We can’t blame CostQuest if they didn’t get this right the first time – Americans are hard to count. I’m not sure this is ever going to be done right. I’m sitting here scratching my head and wondering why the FCC took this approach. I think a call to the U.S. Census would have gotten that advice that this is an impossible goal. The Census spends a fortune every ten years trying to identify where people live. The FCC has given itself the task of creating a 100% census of residences and businesses and updating it every six months.

The first set of broadband map challenges will be about the fabric, and I’m not sure the FCC is ready for the deluge of complaints they are likely to get from every corner of the country. I also have no idea how the FCC will determine if a suggestion to change the fabric is correct because I also don’t think communities can count passings perfectly.

This is not the only challenge. There are going to be challenges of the coverage areas claimed by ISPs. The big challenge, if the FCC allows it, will be about the claimed broadband speeds. If the FCC doesn’t allow that they are going to get buried in complaints. I think the NTIA was right to let the dust settle on challenges before using the new maps.

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