Jun 17, 2021 - Technology

Exclusive: White House debuts new maps showing broadband vacuum

Screenshot of a red and green map of the US showing broadband access
Screenshot: NTIA Indicators of Broadband Need map

The Biden administration Thursday unveiled a new mapping tool that shows much greater gaps in use of high-speed internet service across the U.S. than the government's previous maps reported.

Why it matters: The White House is pushing for big spending to provide more, better broadband service to underserved areas after the pandemic made Americans more dependent than ever on their internet connections.

  • The new, zoomable map draws on a wider pool of data than existing maps by the Federal Communications Commission, which relied exclusively on industry-provided data that overstated broadband penetration.

Driving the news: The map raises questions about the gap between internet availability and actual usage, with usage reports indicating wide swaths of the country are not making a home broadband connection.

  • The new "Indicators of Broadband Need" map, developed by the White House and the telecommunications branch of the Commerce Department, pulls together different data sets from Ookla, M-Lab, Microsoft, the Federal Communications Commission and the Census Bureau.
  • The overlapping data points are meant to paint a picture of the areas that need more, better broadband. The map also includes data on places that reported a lack of connection by computer, smartphone or tablet and information on broadband usage in high-poverty communities.

"What it tells you is there's a lot of places in the United States that aren't using the internet at broadband speeds," a White House official told Axios, estimating that means tens of millions of people.

The big picture: The Biden administration originally proposed a $100 billion investment in broadband as part of the American Jobs Plan infrastructure package.

  • “As we release this important data to the public, it paints a sobering view of the challenges facing far too many Americans as they try to connect to high-speed broadband and participate in our modern economy,” Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

The intrigue: The map shows the gulf between the data set the FCC has used to map broadband availability and where Americans actually report using the internet.

  • The FCC relies on data supplied by internet service providers about where they could offer service.
  • Companies can report that a census block is served even if only one household has internet service — which leads to maps that overstates access.
  • "There's a large gap between what the carriers are saying is on offer to be used and what's actually being used," the White House official told Axios.

Yes, but: Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced a broadband mapping task force earlier this year to improve the agency's data collection and mapping tools.

  • The FCC uses its maps to allocate billions of dollars of subsidies for broadband deployment.
  • The administration effort is not meant to replace those maps or guide broadband funding grants, the White House says.

What they're saying: "To ensure that every household has the internet access necessary for success in the digital age, we need better ways to accurately measure where high-speed service has reached Americans and where it has not,” Rosenworcel said in a statement.

  • The new map project is "a welcome new tool that provides valuable insight into the state of broadband across the country," she said.
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