U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and John Thune, R-S.D., ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, along with U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Robert Latta, R-Ohio, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, today sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel inquiring about the agency’s status on completing its mapping process to ensure accurate broadband data collection.

The group led by Senator Wicker is urging the Federal Communications Commission to produce accurate broadband maps quickly. Without better maps, distribution of aid for broadband connectivity may be delayed, including the money set aside in recent COVID relief packages.

As Wicker wrote in the letter, “The United States faces a persistent digital divide. The pandemic has made connectivity more important than ever, yet millions of Americans continue to live without high-speed broadband. Any delay in creating new maps would delay funding opportunities for unserved households, meaning they will have to wait even longer to access the economic and social opportunities broadband provides.”

The FCC’s broadband service maps are used by the agency to distribute billions of dollars in grants and other aid to improve broadband service in unserved and underserved areas. The maps have been criticized for their inaccuracy and reliance upon faulty data to determine service availability.

Senator Wicker has led efforts to reform the maps, including by authoring the bipartisan Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act and spearheading efforts to provide $98 million to the FCC to implement the law. The Broadband DATA Act requires the FCC to produce new maps based on more granular collection of data.

###

Excerpt from the letter to Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel:

As we begin the 117th Congress, completing accurate broadband maps remains a top priority in our ongoing efforts to close the digital divide. Almost a year has passed since Congress enacted Senator Wicker’s bipartisan Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act. This law reformed the FCC’s broadband data collection and mapping process to create more accurate and granular broadband availability maps. Congress also provided the FCC with $98 million to fund this effort. With so many Americans still lacking high-speed broadband, we are concerned that delays in completing these maps could lead to further delays in distributing critical broadband funds.

You have repeatedly stated that the FCC could quickly produce new broadband maps. On March 10, 2020, you testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) that the FCC could “radically improve” its broadband maps “within three-to-six months.” You repeated that statement the next day, testifying before the House Appropriations Committee’s FSGG Subcommittee that the agency could fix its maps in “just a few months.” You can imagine our surprise and disappointment when your staff recently suggested the new maps would not be ready until 2022.

The United States faces a persistent digital divide. The pandemic has made connectivity more important than ever, yet millions of Americans continue to live without high-speed broadband. Any delay in creating new maps would delay funding opportunities for unserved households, meaning they will have to wait even longer to access the economic and social opportunities broadband provides.  The effect of this delay is especially troubling given your assertion last year that the FCC should reduce funding for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction until the agency produces new maps. Such a decision would create additional delays to broadband deployment for millions of Americans.

The delay in developing new maps will affect other federal programs—such as those created in the COVID-19 stimulus—that rely on these maps to ensure the federal government does not overbuild or duplicate other public funding or private investments. Indeed, Congress specifically directed the FCC to share its data with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) as that agency implements its new broadband grant program. We urge you to provide this information in a timely manner. Any delay could adversely affect NTIA’s ability to provide important COVID relief.

Producing accurate broadband maps in an efficient way is critical to ensuring all Americans enjoy the benefits of broadband. Congress must ensure that the FCC gets this right. We therefore ask that your staff provide us with a quarterly briefing on the status of this implementation. Additionally, we ask that you provide the following information no later than March 22, 2021:

  1. Detailed information on why your estimated timeline for completing new maps has changed from three-to-six months to at least one year.
  2. A detailed timeline for the development of new maps.
  3. Any steps you plan to take to expedite the timeline for completing new maps.
  4. Detailed information on whether the contracting process required by statute will affect the timeline for completing the first new map. Please also provide the anticipated dates for completing the contracting process and development of the IT platforms for the collected data.
  5. A detailed breakdown of how the FCC plans to spend the $98 million Congress provided for the development of new maps.     
  6. Detailed information on whether the revised timeline will delay planned subsidy disbursements, including the 5G Fund and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase II Auction.    
  7. A detailed plan for how the Commission plans to incorporate its biannual data collections in a timely manner to ensure broadband maps remain up-to-date over time.
  8. Detailed information on how the FCC, as required by law, is coordinating with the NTIA and using NTIA’s National Broadband Availability Map to inform the Commission’s broadband mapping efforts. Please include information on the FCC’s actions to coordinate with NTIA on their Broadband Infrastructure Program, and the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program.

Click here to read the full letter.

###

Release from the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee and Senator Roger Wicker.