Tester Bill Would Help Build Out Broadband, Close Digital Divide in Rural America

Bipartisan legislation would make Montana broadband coverage maps more accurate

(U.S. Senate) – Plowing ahead in his push to #ConnectMT, U.S. Senator Jon Tester introduced the Broadband Data Improvement Act to help increase federal funding for broadband buildout in rural areas by improving the accuracy of broadband coverage maps.

“In rural America, one farm could have access to broadband while their neighbors down the road remain in the dark. But if you look at these maps, they say both farms are covered,” Tester said. “So, if we’re serious about improving desperately needed connectivity in rural areas, we first need more granular data that actually reflects who’s covered and who’s not, so resources can get where they’re needed most.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are charged with allocating billions of dollars each year to ensure that broadband coverage gaps are closed. However, there is broad bipartisan consensus that the data the FCC collects is not sufficiently accurate or granular to pinpoint these gaps or guide decision-making on where funds should be directed to support broadband buildout.

Currently, broadband maps are broken down by census block-which vary greatly in terms of population and geographic area. The physically largest census block, for example, is 8,500 square miles while the smallest is less than one tenth of one square mile. That means census blocks in rural areas tend to encompass many more square miles and many fewer people than census blocks in urban areas.

That’s why Tester’s bipartisan bill-co-sponsored by Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Brian Schatz (D- Hawaii), and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.)-would require broadband providers to report data in a way that more accurately reflects the locations they actually serve.

This would create a new, improved National Broadband Map that is significantly more accurate and granular, as well as subject to an ongoing and multi-faceted challenge, validation, and refinement process. And accurate and granular data will enable federal agencies to target funding to the areas the need it the most, close the remaining coverage gaps, and ensure accountability and transparency.

Right now, in generating these maps, broadband providers submit a list of census blocks in which they can or do offer service to at least one location. That means a provider can claim a census block is covered, regardless of whether their service is available to every household in that census block or just a single household in that census block. This doesn’t pose much of a problem in urban areas, where census blocks are physically small and densely populated. But in rural area this method leads to significant gaps in reporting.

As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, Tester recently grilled telecom company representatives about the accuracy of broadband coverage maps and the consequences they have on federal investments in rural America.

Tester has been an active supporter of expanding broadband and cellular service to rural America. Launching his #ConnectMT initiative in 2015, he has helped address connectivity issues facing people across Montana. In December, he helped secure $600 million to launch the ReConnect Program to expand high-speed internet in rural communities across the country.