Better Maps, Better Connectivity: How Data Can Close the Broadband Gap

Pew event highlights need for more accurate information on places that lack service

Better Maps, Better Connectivity: How Data Can Close the Broadband Gap
Jessica Rosenworcel
Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel delivers opening remarks at a Pew event on broadband maps, connectivity.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Participants at an event The Pew Charitable Trusts hosted on broadband connectivity in December agreed that a lack of accurate data is hampering efforts to expand this vital service to the millions of Americans who lack it.

“We cannot manage what we do not measure,” said Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a sentiment echoed by representatives of state and federal government, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector who participated in a series of panel discussions on the collection, verification, and visualization of broadband data.

What are the data challenges?

As policymakers work with industry and stakeholders to ensure that all Americans have access, they need reliable data to effectively target funding and programs to meet their goals. The primary source of information on connectivity is the Federal Communications Commission, which gathers data from carriers offering broadband service. Since 2011, that data—collected on Form 477—has been displayed on the Fixed Broadband Deployment map (previously called the National Broadband Map), which shows which entities are offering fixed broadband, where they are offering it, and at what speeds.

But participants at the December event widely agreed that the Form 477 data is incomplete and sometimes inaccurate, which means that the map should not be treated as definitive about where broadband is available. Although it might indicate that access is available at a certain address, that might not be the case. Form 477 data captures the presence of broadband within a census block—and the size of a census block can vary from a single city block to hundreds of square miles. It does not account for factors such as whether a provider offers service only to a small portion of the census block or is able to access apartment buildings in the neighborhood.

Many panelists noted the increasing demand by decisionmakers and the public for address-level data, but said such data is hard to obtain and verify because of concerns about competition, the burden on providers, and consumer privacy. No national address database exists that could be used for this effort, and the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration lack the resources under current programs to conduct in-depth data validation.  

What should the data tell us?

Participants debated what policymakers should consider as they weigh options for improving the data. For example, what do lawmakers need to know about the state of broadband connectivity? Are they interested in quality, price, or subscribership? Do they need information on existing infrastructure or past efforts to increase connectivity? Should the data be available for all stakeholders or restricted to policymakers, which may allow the use of more accurate, but proprietary, industry data?

Policymakers should also consider how data needs and interests are changing. Mobile broadband usage continues to increase, communities are embracing telehealth and precision agriculture, and Americans are using broadband at home to access more services online. So, data on factors such as wireless connectivity, actual speed, and latency—the time it takes for data to move from one part of the network to the other—will increasingly inform the debate about how best to improve broadband access. Examining these considerations and evaluating how information needs are changing may help policymakers determine what they want to know, why they want to know it, and what data they need to get an answer.

How should we visualize the data?

Finally, participants considered the challenges related to visualizing data. The current FCC national broadband map is of limited value for government leaders seeking to expand reliable, high-speed internet access because of the real concerns about the reliability and accuracy of the data.  Although it has been a helpful start, another kind of visualization—perhaps with different kinds of information—may help policymakers better understand who lacks broadband and where they live.

Participants suggested examining what some government agencies and community organizations are doing to make existing data more useful. These steps include layering on information about the local economy, adding population density, and using the Form 477 data as the starting point for on-the-ground connectivity verification. As the data improves, stakeholders may be able to create new visualizations—maps or otherwise—that better equip policymakers to expand broadband access to those who still lack it.

This was the first in a series of events hosted by Pew’s broadband research initiative to explore issues related to broadband connectivity. For more information about Pew’s broadband research, please contact Kathryn de Wit.

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