A coalition of rural broadband organizations led by USTelecom estimated today that 38 percent of the rural homes in Missouri and Virginia that the FCC claims have access to broadband are, in fact, unserved. That represents more than 445,000 homes that the Commission missed using its current counting methods. The coalition released the results of an eight-month pilot project in those two states using a “polygon” method of analyzing census blocks, which goes beyond the FCC’s analysis based on its regular Form 477 surveys of internet providers.
“That 38 percent represents kind of the upper bound because we did not have participation by all carriers,” said Jim Stegeman, president and CEO of CostQuest Associates, who presented the findings on behalf of the coalition during a webcast this afternoon. “But we believe the issue to be well in the 20 percent range in the two states of Missouri and Virginia.”
USTelecom, along with AT&T, CenturyLink and several other telecommunications organizations announced the coalition and the two-state pilot in March. The pilot involved applying geocoded subscriber information for all census blocks in both states. The process created what the group calls a “Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric” of geographical areas that uncovered structures and attempted to sort out homes from barns from sheds, as well as those that would be likely or unlikely to be wired for broadband.
However, because the participants in the pilot were dominated by telcos, the level of geographical location data available to the coalition was limited. The group had to estimate rural penetration of other broadband providers, including cable and satellite services.
Why has the FCC failed to report these unserved homes in the past? “These locations are homes and businesses hidden from service providers and policymakers simply because of a lack of knowledge fueled by gaps in data—gaps that we can now fill,” the coalition concluded in their report.
The FCC earlier this month adopted an order assigning responsibility for developing improved broadband mapping methods to the Universal Service Administration Corporation (USAC). Should the FCC/USAC ultimately use the coalition’s fabric or some method like it to build a new national broadband map, cost could become a major issue.
The group estimates costs of $8.5-11 million in costs to establish its counting method nationwide and an additional $3-4 million a year to conduct annual updates. However, they base those costs on FCC access to proprietary geocoded information like the data it had for the two-state pilot. The Commission would have to establish procedures to protect that data from public access.
“If, however, it’s decided that we have to go to open sources and all data has to be publicly available to any party, that cost escalates upward of $20 to $25 million,” Stegeman said.