Lawmakers gathered at a House Communications Subcommittee hearing on Tuesday to examine the adequacy of the FCC’s current definition of broadband service and whether an update to the National Broadband Map is needed to help close the digital divide which persists in rural areas and other underserved areas.
Tuesday’s hearing was described as “informational” and did not cover pending legislation which pertains to broadband— an omission which some Democratic members of the panel lamented as a lost opportunity. Nevertheless, subcommittee chairwoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) emphasized to her colleagues that “accurately defining broadband and accurately mapping” broadband coverage “is imperative” in ensuring that the tax dollars “of hard working Americans goes to [support broadband] in places that are most in need.” In accordance with the tenets of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the National Broadband Map was last updated in 2014. A year later, the FCC adopted its current minimum speed threshold of 25 Mbps downstream which satisfies the agency’s official definition of high speed broadband. As she noted that the FCC’s decision to increase the minimum speed also reduced the number of people who were defined as receiving high-speed broadband services, Blackburn questioned “whether a ‘totality of circumstances’ test might be more appropriate for broadband connectivity,” particularly as a variety of download speeds may serve a variety of purposes.
Meanwhile, on the subject of mapping, a witness testifying on behalf of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation advised the panel that the most important issue is “how much coverage at what speed can be achieved at what price.” Arguing that data contained in the current version of the National Broadband Map is not granular enough, an official of Connected Nation called on lawmakers to mandate granularity at the street address or parcel level. Asserting she is “not aware of any comprehensive data set” with geocodes for every building in the country,” former FCC Wireline Bureau Deputy Chief Carol Mattey suggested that presumptions as to whether an area is served by broadband can be resolved by requiring ISPs to (1) report a census block as “served” only if all or most of the locations in that block are actually served, and (2) adopt the challenge process which the FCC uses in determining eligibility for the Connect America Fund.