It’s no mystery that the quality of the Federal Communications Commission’s (“FCC”) mapping data leaves something to be desired. The FCC’s 14th Broadband Deployment Report estimated that 96% of Americans have access to broadband. However, organizations such as Microsoft and Pew Research have found that about 49% and 65% of Americans have access to broadband respectively. This discrepancy more highlights how much uncertainty surrounds who has broadband access.
Broadband Internet access has become a necessity as important as electricity. It is a baseline required to work, learn, and interact with society from home and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Clear and accurate mapping data is critical to ensuring that anyone who needs to be connected can be.
States understand how broadband, or the lack thereof, can impact their communities. In 2018, recognizing that 1.6 million Georgians lacked access to high-speed Internet, Georgia state legislators passed SB 402, Achieving Connectivity Everywhere (ACE) Act, which formed the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative (“GBDI”). The new law also created new grant initiatives, helped streamline how communities structure their broadband ordinances, created new designation for facilities or sites that can support at least one gigabit of service, and implemented a new long-term policy approach that governs broadband deployment along interstate highways and rights-of-way policies on state roads.
GBDI Director Deana Perry highlighted that “this is the most detailed resource to date that illustrates the digital divide in Georgia.” She added that the new mapping initiative has been instrumental in directing investment in broadband to “better serve individuals, families, businesses and other institutions that are essential to the quality of life for Georgia’s residents.”
Notably, the ACE Act requires the Department of Community Affairs to publish new, publicly available, broadband availability maps. Released in June 2020, the maps show the aggregate locations of served and unserved areas statewide as well as by county. According to Georgia’s maps, densely populated areas, like those surrounding Atlanta, are 99% served, while some rural areas show that zero locations have service.
The underlying data is provided by Internet service providers. However, it differs from FCC data insofar as it is location based, and census blocks are not considered served unless more than 80% of locations have service.
According to Georgia’s data almost 10% of the State’s population remains unserved. As Eric McRae, associate director of information technology outreach services at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Government, explained, “[W]hen you actually start thinking about it, that’s a million people that don’t have service.”
Georgia’s mapping methodology is changing how other states measure broadband access. McRae, who helped oversee the map’s creation, noted, “[The State of] Virginia wrote to us and said we had changed broadband forever.” Montana has also requested that Georgia officials share information about its new approach.
Accurately mapping where the broadband is, and has always been a critical backbone to getting communities connected. Georgia officials are developing solutions for a problem that has beleaguered federal policymakers for years. It does not only reveal the urgency of the need to improve broadband mapping, but it illustrates the fact that state and local officials have critical insights that could improve federal broadband programs.