April 07, 2021

Gillibrand, Colleagues Call On FCC To Include State & Local Data In Efforts To Expand Broadband, Close Digital Divide And Homework Gap

Congress Demanded FCC Build New Broadband Data Maps In 2020 Following Decades-long Use Of Inaccurate Data That Denied Broadband Funding To Eligible Communities; Senators Say State, Local, And Tribal Data Is Critical To Ensure Accurate Maps

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand joined Senate Democrats to call on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to include state, local, and tribal data in efforts to expand nationwide broadband. Congress has demanded the FCC build new broadband data maps after decades of flawed data maps that denied broadband funding to eligible communities. State, local, and tribal governments often collect granular and comprehensive data that shows exactly who does, and who does not, have access to reliable high-speed broadband in their communities. Gillibrand and her colleagues urged the FCC to consult with state and local governments to ensure accurate nationwide broadband data collection so that federal resources are efficiently targeted and leveraged.

“State and local governments have been on the frontlines of expanding reliable high-speed broadband access in their communities and their input is critical to federal efforts,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Local officials have granular, local data that is invaluable to helping the FCCC deliver resources to close gaps in broadband access. For years, the FCC has relied on inaccurate data that have excluded eligible communities in New York and across the country from federal funding. At a time when more New Yorkers than ever are relying on online services in their daily lives, I’m urging the FCC to work with state and local officials to close the pervasive digital divide in our communities.” 

As many services and businesses remain closed in response to public health guidelines, more workers and families are relying on online services to find jobs and access health care and other government services. However, about 40% of families in New York State do not have access to an internet connected device or do not have access to reliable high speed internet at home, according to the Education Trust of New York. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide and “homework gap” for many students who need reliable internet access for education — an estimated 12 million students currently lack reliable internet access at home. 

Senator Gillibrand has repeatedly fought to deliver funding to New York State to ensure students and families have access to reliable internet at home. The American Rescue Plan delivered more than $7.1 billion nationally to close the homework gap by providing internet and connected devices to vulnerable students and educators. New York is estimated to receive around $632 million in funding to help students and educators. Additionally, Gillibrand has called on the new FCC leadership to immediately authorize available emergency funds for the E-Rate program as schools and students continue to rely on remote learning during the pandemic. The E-Rate program allows students to learn safely from home while guaranteeing online access to course materials. Last month, Gillibrand announced legislation to invest $6 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit program to help close the homework gap and ensure families across New York can access essential online services. 

Full text of the letter can be found here and below. 

Dear Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel, 

For almost one year after the passage of the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act (Broadband DATA Act), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under the previous administration, took little action towards fulfilling its congressional mandate to update nationwide flawed broadband maps. We applaud you for taking decisive action in your first meeting as Acting Chairwoman of the FCC to begin implementing the Broadband DATA Act. You have long recognized the important role broadband maps play in our efforts to close the digital divide and championed the need for aggressive action to ensure that Universal Service Fund dollars are distributed to the communities that need them most.

As the FCC considers how to best design a new broadband mapping data collection system, we strongly urge you to incorporate the voices of state, local and tribal governments and provide them with an opportunity to meaningfully challenge the data filed by internet service providers (ISPs). Many state and local governments know exactly who do and do not have access to reliable high-speed broadband within their communities. In fact, some states have created their own maps with granular data. Their valuable insights will be integral in creating accurate data maps that accurately reflect broadband services as experienced by consumers and ensuring that federal dollars are efficiently targeted and leveraged.

In 2000, the FCC created the Form 477 Data Program to collect data from ISPs. However, there is widespread agreement that Form 477 data is deeply flawed. Self-reported coverage maps submitted by ISPs, and rarely verified for accuracy by the FCC, resulted in deficient maps that did not reflect real-world broadband availability. Tests of mobile wireless services underscores the need for robust input from state, local and tribal entities. An FCC coverage map investigation revealed that FCC staff were unable to obtain the minimum download speed for almost 40% of drive tests despite service providers reporting coverage in the relevant areas. Furthermore, FCC methodology that considers a census block served if only one home or business in that census block has broadband access overstates coverage nationwide and blocks funding from otherwise qualified communities. 

Frustrated by inaccurate and incomplete maps, Congress has charged the FCC with developing a comprehensive, precise, granular nationwide broadband data map in order to help policymakers determine where to invest tax dollars. The Broadband DATA Act requires the FCC to create a common dataset of all locations in the United States where fixed broadband internet access service can be installed.  Furthermore, for the very first time, consumers, local governments and independent third parties will have the ability to challenge the accuracy of FCC broadband maps. 

Improved and accurate national maps with precise information will allow policymakers to make strategic broadband investments to finally close the digital divide and the homework gap, expand telemedicine, improve economic and health outcomes for communities nationwide, and help our country recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Accurate mapping cannot be completed without insight from state and local officials, many of whom have created databases of their broadband capacity and needs and can help fill in valuable gaps. We urge the FCC to work with local, state and tribal entities to create a mechanism to allow them to challenge inaccurate broadband data.

We look forward to working closely with you on this issue. 

Sincerely,