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NTIA Recommends Improvements to the FCC’s Broadband Data Collection

January 03, 2018 by John B. Morris, Jr., Associate Administrator, Office of Policy Analysis and Development

NTIA relies on sound data to understand the state of communications and information use in the United States, and to develop policies that promote robust broadband services across the country. Since 1994, NTIA has been collecting data on broadband adoption and usage in the United States. Our work has been complemented in recent years by the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 data program.

Broadband providers—including both wired and wireless providers—complete Form 477 to report where they offer service, as well as what speeds they offer and the technologies they use, among other information. The data collected through Form 477 constitute a critical resource for NTIA, as well as other policymakers and researchers who are interested in understanding Internet access in the United States. This week, in response to the FCC seeking ideas for how to improve its Form 477 data collection, NTIA filed comments recommending specific measures the FCC can take to enhance the program.

In the filing, NTIA recommends improvements to two aspects of the Form 477 program. First, the FCC should bolster the accuracy of the broadband availability data. During every reporting period, numerous providers from across the country, using a range of different methodologies, submit data on every Census block they serve. Such extensive data are bound to include some inaccuracies and differences based on providers’ interpretations of reporting instructions.

We recommend that the FCC implement a data validation program, and suggest looking to NTIA’s previous work on the State Broadband Initiative, as well as the ongoing practices of various state programs, for examples of how it might verify broadband availability data. Further, we suggest creating a streamlined process through which members of the public can report possible inaccuracies.

Second, the FCC could increase the accessibility of Form 477 data by making more information available and usable by a wider audience. Local and federal policymakers and researchers would find it helpful for the FCC to release datasets more quickly and have access to more information, such as the lowest—in addition to the highest—upload and download speeds being advertised by providers.

That said, many researchers and stakeholders lack the resources to turn raw datasets into a usable format. We urge the FCC to begin updating the National Broadband Map—or alternatively, provide a similarly full-featured successor—with the most recent data from Form 477. The FCC should also supplement mapping and other visualization tools by releasing sample code demonstrating how it analyzes the raw datasets. For example, users have complimented us on the utility of our Data Explorer tool and the Research Center section of Data Central. We believe users of Form 477 data would similarly benefit from such resources.

For nearly forty years, NTIA has served as the Executive Branch expert on communications and information policies, and has a decades-long track record of collecting, analyzing, and publicly releasing data vital to research and policy in our field. We applaud the FCC for its great work to date on the Form 477 program, as well as its efforts to make further improvements. Data from Form 477 form a critical piece of the larger Federal broadband data puzzle, and we hope our recommendations will influence enhancements that drive cutting-edge research and data-driven policymaking aimed at enabling all Americans to fully participate in the digital economy.

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