NTIA’s New Broadband Map

By Doug Dawson, June 22, 2021 | Original POTS and Pans article here.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration surprised the broadband industry by issuing a new broadband map for the whole U.S. The map differs in dramatic ways from the FCC’s broadband map, which is derived from broadband speeds that are reported by the ISPs in the country. It’s commonly understood that the FCC broadband map overstates broadband coverage significantly. The NTIA map draws upon varied sources in an attempt to create a more accurate picture of the availability of broadband.

The NTIA map was created by overlaying layers from various data sources over Google Maps. This includes speed test data from both Ookla and M-Lab. The map shows the results from Microsoft measurements of speeds experienced during software updates. There are two layers of data from the American Community Survey showing homes that report having no Internet access at home and also homes that have no computer, smartphone, or tablet.

The NTIA also includes the FCC Form 477 data that is the only basis for the FCC broadband map. The NTIA map then offers an additional layer that shows high poverty areas have 20% or more households below the national poverty level. The data in the map can be viewed at both the Census tract and Census block level.

The data on the map is eye-opening. I live in Asheville, North Carolina. The map shows that broadband adoption varies widely across the city. In my Census tract, there are 6% of homes without broadband access. The neighboring tracts have broadband access in between 6% and 10% of households. But there is also a part of the city where 43% of homes don’t have broadband. This is clearly an issue of poverty and not availability because, in the rural areas surrounding the city where there is little option except slow DSL, the percentage of homes without broadband access is around 20%.

The NTIA map sticks it in the eye of the FCC for being so slow to change its broadband maps. The exaggerated coverage in the FCC maps first became obvious to me in 2009 when clients were seeking ARRA stimulus grants that defined homes as either served, unserved, or underserved for the first time.

It was clear then that some of the ISP reporting to the FCC was pure fantasy. There has been a loud call since then to fix the FCC maps that has largely gone unheeded until a recent effort to begin the process of modifying the maps. That effort is expected to take a year or two.

The NTIA is making a point that there are many other sources of broadband data than just the FCC data. For example, we all know that speed test data isn’t perfect – but taken in mass, speed tests create a pretty accurate picture of broadband speeds. One of the most interesting data points is from Microsoft – one can argue that the speeds encountered when downloading a big data file like a software update is the best measurement of actual speed. The Microsoft data shows that actual download speeds are far below what ISPs claim in most of the country.

There are even more data points that could be layered onto the NTIA maps. For example, I wish the NTIA has also layered on maps created by State broadband offices because the States have taken a stab at undoing the worse fictions in the FCC mapping.

As might be expected, the industry reacted almost immediately to the new maps. The NCTA – The Internet and Television Association quickly blasted the NTIA maps. The big trade associations probably have a good reason to hate the maps after the Department of Treasury said just last week that cities and counties could rely on mapping data from any federal agency when deciding where ARPA grant funding can be spent. Localities are going to find these maps to be interesting and useful as they consider spending money on broadband infrastructure.

Hopefully, the NTIA will continue to update these maps as new data becomes available. You probably know by reading this blog that I am not a fan of using speed definitions when allocating broadband grants. I think it would far easier, as an example, to say that grants can always be used to overbuild rural DSL. But if the government continues to base grants upon something like the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband, then maps like this new one are extremely helpful by showing more realistic speed numbers while also reminding is that there are a lot of other factors like poverty and broadband adoption rates to consider when deciding which parts of the country need grant assistance.