Restricting FCC Mapping Data

Last week, the FCC rejected dozens of requests from ISPs to keep confidential the method that the ISPs use to identify broadband coverage areas. This was prompted by the FCC requiring each ISP to explain to the agency how it determined broadband coverage areas in the latest round of gathering data for the FCC broadband maps.

Several dozen ISPs then asked the FCC to keep those responses confidential, with most ISPs arguing that the method of how customers are counted reveals proprietary data about the ISP networks. The FCC rejected all such arguments and commented that the public needs to know how customers and coverage areas are determined if there is to be any meaningful review and challenge of the FCC mapping data.

By the way, we now have some new industry acronyms. The FCC is referring to the new mapping process as the BDC (Broadband Data Collection initiative). A second new acronym is mapping fabric, meaning the underlying data that supposedly shows the location of every building in the country where somebody could order broadband. It’s always been hard to know if it’s deliberate but referring to regulatory efforts using new acronyms acts to confuse the public about what is going on. Somebody reading a news article talking about the BDC and challenges to the fabric likely has no idea what is being discussed.

All of this matters because the FCC has already started the process of allowing challenges to the mapping fabric. Local governments and ISPs are now able to challenge the locations of the ‘passings’, which are residential and business locations that could be a customer for broadband. There have been early comments made that there are a lot of errors in the fabric developed by CostQuest. There are some places where too many passings have been identified, such as a farm where there are multiple buildings, most of which are not candidates to buy a broadband subscription. I’ve also heard there are places where a lot of actual passings are missing from the map. Most confusing is that there are a lot of places in the country that nobody knows how to count – such as vacation cabins.

One of the biggest hurdles to the fabric challenge is that the FCC mapping fabric data is not widely available for the public to examine. CostQuest has provided free access to localities to review local data, although some local governments are saying that it has been a challenge to get access to the data. Unfortunately, the contract between CostQuest and local government restricts the use of the data only for purposes of challenging the fabric data. It seems a local government can’t disclose details about the fabric to its citizens.

The FCC mapping data is not being made available to the general public. This makes challenging the maps difficult for rural counties, which mostly don’t have the resources to take the time to understand, let alone challenge the maps. Keeping the data proprietary means that the general public can’t participate in this challenge. In many rural counties, there are ad hoc broadband committees that would devote the time and energy to understand the local maps. But local folks who are interested in broadband but who are not officially sanctioned by the local government are not being allowed access to the data. The data is also not available generically to nonprofits, consultants, or others that have the technical skills to analyze the data.

I guess this means that the mapping fabric challenge is supposed to be done by local governments that don’t have the staff, funding, time, or technical expertise to understand the mapping fabric, let alone suggest corrections. Most of the rural counties I know are not reviewing the fabric – meaning that nobody is reviewing the broadband data in the places that most need better broadband.

I know several folks who are trying to find out how this happened – how a commercial business like CostQuest is allowed to act as if it owns the mapping data. Apparently, the FCC contract with CostQuest has given the company the right to monetize the data. I hope after the facts are better known that Congress will step in and makes all FCC mapping data open to the public.

I wrote recently about the data divide – where public data is not making it to the folks that need it the most. The federal government is spending huge amounts of money developing maps that show areas with and without access to broadband. I can’t think of a single reason why this data isn’t available to everybody. But I can think of two reasons to keep the data restricted. First, this will tamp down on a raft of news articles talking about errors in the mapping fabric. The second reason is to give CostQuest the chance to monetize the process. In my opinion, these are both unacceptable ways to treat data that was created with taxpayer money.

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