FCC Takes Important Steps to Expand Broadband Access

Expanding access to broadband and closing the digital divide continues to be a key policy priority for OCA.  Access to broadband is critical to advancing the social, political, and economic well-being of the AAPI community and all Americans, including those living in harder to reach areas.  During the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent monthly meeting in August, the FCC adopted two separate orders related to: (1) improving broadband mapping; and (2) updating and clarifying cable franchise rules to promote broadband deployment.  Both of these orders take important steps to help expand broadband access to more Americans. 

Broadband Mapping.  In any conversation regarding broadband access, one of the biggest problems is determining exactly where the gaps in broadband coverage are.  For some time, the FCC's method for collecting broadband coverage data has been criticized as resulting in overly broad and inaccurate maps. In an effort to better identify and map areas unserved by broadband, the FCC adopted an order that will now require providers to submit to the FCC "shapefiles" (electronic coverage or service maps) that indicate where providers have built out their broadband network and make service available.  The FCC found that these shapefiles will improve its ability to better identify unserved areas and target federal broadband subsidies to areas that actually need it most.

In addition to the use of shapefiles, the FCC's recent broadband mapping order also established a process to allow for public input or "crowdsourcing."  This process will allow consumers and state and local governments to provide feedback to the FCC regarding the accuracy of a providers’ service map.  The FCC is now seeking additional input on whether it should incorporate and require (in addition to shapefiles) even more granular, location-specific (e.g., address-level or geographic coordinates) information as part of its new collection procedures for broadband mapping. 

At this point, it isn't clear that such additional, detailed information is even needed by the FCC.  Provider coverage maps or shapefiles, combined with crowdsourcing, will likely be more than sufficient to identify areas unserved by broadband – all without disclosing sensitive information like address-level or geographic locations of people's homes.  If any additional information is needed at all, it should be limited to truly unserved areas, not locations that are already served.

Promoting Broadband Deployment.  Another important part of ensuring broadband access is creating an environment in which providers are encouraged to invest in expanding and upgrading their networks.  Unfortunately, many local cable franchise authorities have not fostered such an environment.  For example, in some areas, local cable franchise authorities have been assessing additional franchise fees on broadband providers who were alreadypaying franchise fees to provide cable services over the same network.  Such duplicative fees increase the cost of broadband access to consumers and diverts money that otherwise could have been invested in broadband network upgrades and expansion.  

The FCC’s recent order clarifies the fact that existing law (i.e., Section 621 of the Cable Act) already prevents local franchising authorities from assessing these duplicative and harmful franchise fees on broadband service.  In addition, as part of this order, the FCC also clarifies limits on, and appropriate treatment of, “in-kind” contributions (e.g., free cable services to government agencies) which are known to substantially increase costs on broadband providers.  Eliminating these duplicative fees and clarifying what “in-kind’ contributions should consist of will allow broadband providers to direct much-needed funds to building essential broadband infrastructure in communities across the country.

These recent orders by the FCC represent important steps to better identify areas that truly lack broadband access across the country, while also removing regulatory barriers to expanding broadband access. OCA is pleased to see the adoption of these pro-consumer measures which we expect will go a long way in bringing critical broadband access to all communities.