What Is USTelecom’s Broadband Mapping Initiative?

What Is US Telecom Broadband Mapping Initiative - Featured Image

The country’s overall economic health directly connects to the availability of broadband internet. Fast, dependable internet leads to increased employment, business investment, and educational opportunities. While the federal government remains committed to improving internet access for all Americans, achieving that goal is no simple task.

Assessment is the first step towards infrastructure improvement. Experts have a fairly clear understanding of what locations in the U.S have access to broadband internet. However, determining locations without broadband is a difficult and complicated undertaking.

The Broadband Mapping Initiative is a multi-partnership consortium dedicated to identifying broadband access, and lack thereof, throughout the country. Their goal is to create a comprehensive map of broadband availability nationwide.

Who is USTelecom?

Also referred to simply as “The Broadband Association,” USTelecom is a large and diverse collection of companies and organizations. Members include the following:

  • ITTA – A lobbying and trade association for America’s largest internet providers
  • WISPA – A trade association for wireless internet service providers
  • AT&T
  • CenturyLink
  • Consolidated
  • Frontier
  • Riverstree
  • TDS
  • Verizon
  • Windstream

Overcoming the Digital Divide

At the heart of the issue is what’s called the “Digital Divide.” It’s the gap between those in the country with and without access to modern communications technology. Generally, the Digital Divide refers to broadband internet and computer access, although it can also include access to TV and phones.

Let’s back up a minute and unpack some of these ideas.

Often referred to generally as “high-speed internet,” broadband internet delivers download speeds starting at 5 Mbps but potentially extending to 25 Mbps and beyond. Broadband is delivered by coaxial cable, optical fiber (FiOS) or wirelessly.

Broadband internet allows you to stream movies and play online games, but it has far more important uses, too. Communities with access to broadband internet see increased job opportunities, economic benefits, educational opportunities, and more.

Broadband access is so vital it’s often referred to as the “fourth utility” alongside water, heat, and power. The federal government, as well as many state and local governments, recognize broadband’s importance. However, funding and resources are limited. Determining how to allocate them is often difficult.

The Difficulties in Accurately Measuring Broadband Availability

Identifying locations with broadband internet is a massive undertaking, but it’s possible. Researchers “simply” compile records from internet service providers.

However, current coverage areas only tell us half the story. Here’s where it gets tricky.

Broadband providers tally coverage areas by census block. A census block is a small area used by the census when measuring population. Physical features like roads and invisible boundaries such as property lines and county roads define them.

In cities and suburbs, a census block is typically a neighborhood bound by roads. However, census blocks in rural areas are less clearly defined. Streams, fences, and other irregular features create uneven boundaries. Rural census blocks can stretch for hundreds of miles.

Measuring coverage at the census-block level poses problems. In an urban area, blocks are typically small and compact enough that an ISP will cover the entire area. However, an ISP might only cover a portion of a large census block in a rural region.

The U.S. has no singular, easy-to-access database detailing every home and building found in the country. Nobody knows for sure what’s in every census block. Marking an entire block as covered doesn’t necessarily mean every building in the block has broadband access.

The best way to map broadband is by combining census block data with information on specific coverage locations provided by ISPs.

The Main Goals of USTelecom

Federal and state officials recognize government data isn’t enough for accurate mapping. Information from the nation’s internet providers is needed, too. Together, providers and government agencies hope to accomplish several goals:

  • Improve mapping databases to develop a complete picture of broadband availability.
  • Develop a realistic timetable and cost estimate for improving broadband infrastructure in rural and other underserved areas.
  • Identify areas best served by funds from current and future government programs.
  • Increase internet literacy among Americans receiving broadband internet for the first time.
  • Implement training programs to teach people how broadband internet access helps increase employment, education, and other opportunities.

Broadband internet doesn’t just boost the economy after creation. Installing new networks improves local economies, too. Since 2017, ISPs and the federal government have invested over $76 billion to expand broadband infrastructure. Developing has created over 10 million jobs. Even better, a significant amount of that money benefits poor, rural areas.

The economic benefits of upgrading broadband access don’t take decades to develop. Instead, communities benefit right away.

The Broadband Mapping Pilot Program

Mapping broadband availability across the country is an enormous undertaking. USTelecom isn’t attempting it overnight. Instead, they’re starting with a pilot program in Missouri and Virginia. It has three steps:

The first step is creating a database of all locations which could potentially use broadband. The list includes all homes and businesses within those two states. The Post Office and other sources provide location data.

Next, georeferencing tools will assign a unique latitude and longitude to every location. Doing so removes duplicate locations such as several businesses all located within a single office complex.

Finally, ISPs provide information on current locations covered by broadband. Researchers can now identify two types of locations:

  • Areas not served by broadband because coverage isn’t an option
  • Locations which can have broadband but choose not to subscribe

Different reporting methods and formats are still undergoing testing. A crowdsourcing option is also in development. Residents can soon submit their personal information regarding broadband access directly to USTelecom.

What’s It All Mean?

Accurate mapping is an important first step in improving internet access for every U.S. resident. It’s vital for the growth and economic development of the entire country.

It’s an enormous project, but we don’t want to lose sight of the impact on individuals. People with broadband internet have access to a variety of employment, education, and health care opportunities, which can improve their quality of life tremendously.

Blair Campbell

Founder of GetInternet. Blair studied computer science at the California Institute of Technology Computing and Mathematical Sciences program, but he enjoys writing on the side. He grew up in southern California and now lives in Denver, Colorado.