WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The digital divide between urban American and farmers, businesses and communities in rural America is widening, partially because the Federal Communications Commission uses flawed mapping tools to define who has good internet access.
Members of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday heard from the president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau and others about mapping problems with FCC that make it more difficult to know exactly where internet coverage holes actually exist. Multiple people testified that FCC coverage maps dramatically overstate broadband coverage.
"We cannot close the digital divide if we don't know the size and location of existing coverage gaps," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the committee.
The FCC, using a form filled out by major broadband providers, Form 477, claimed late last year that "approximately 100% of the American public lives in geographic areas covered by mobile LTE with a minimum advertised speed of 5 Mbps/1Mbps."
Yet a 2017 USDA survey showed 29% of U.S. farms have no internet access. That survey also showed 30% of rural America overall lacks broadband access, compared to 2% of urban America.
The FCC is using the information from that Form 477 to spend $4.5 billion over the next decade to upgrade high-speed connectivity across the country. To get access to those funds or other government funding, companies have to prove they are servicing areas that aren't already served by an unsubsidized internet provider. While farmers, ranchers, business people and consumers know when they don't have real broadband access, the process to challenge the accuracy of the FCC maps is complicated and almost impossible to achieve, witnesses told senators.
For instance, the FCC shows 98% of Mississippi residents have broadband access. But Mike McCormick, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau, said his organization set out to challenge the FCC's figure because roughly 72% of Mississippi residents don't have access to broadband speeds, and just 16% of the state uses the internet at higher broadband speed.
The Mississippi Farm Bureau tried to challenge the FCC maps because farmers and others simply knew the FCC was grossly inaccurate. The Farm Bureau worked with the Mississippi Public Service Commission but found the FCC had also made it almost impossible to directly challenge its maps.
"We wanted to show it was so complicated for us it was impossible and it was absolutely impossible for a consumer to do," McCormick said. "It just showed the system is broken and needs changed."
McCormick credited Congress for taking a deeper dive into the FCC's mapping logic. "Any effort to move forward with the current maps will lock rural America into a digital divide at least for the next decade."
McCormick told senators about farmers who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on machinery that demands a data connection.
"They have bought a lot of high-priced equipment that they don't get to use because they are spending on technology," McCormick said. "They certainly want to make sure we put the correct amount of fertilizer out, of chemicals out, of pesticides. We don't want to over-apply for the environment, and it hurts the farmers' pocketbooks. But without the connectivity, we don't have the ability to apply that technology."
McCormick mentioned a farmer with a tractor that can wirelessly inform a dealership about a problem, but that doesn't work if the farmer doesn't have connectivity for the tractor to signal its problem.
"So the farmer had to end up taking the equipment back to the shop, get in line and lost a day or two of harvesting," McCormick said. "If they had the internet there, they could have taken care of the problem right on his farm."
Farm Bureau and others who testified said more "granular data" is needed to determine coverage areas.
Mike Oblizalo, vice president and general manager of Hood Canal Communications in Shelton, Washington, told senators that false positives on the broadband map -- locations showing service when it isn't there -- can result in denial of financing or funded needed for a small broadband company.
Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, which represents broadband providers, said rural broadband access has increased more than 70% over the last decade. Still, he said, "If you can't map it, you can't deploy it" is a mantra for broadband companies.
USTelecom is now working on a pilot project in Missouri and Virginia to develop more comprehensive broadband maps for those states. Ideally, the pilot will become a roadmap for the government to develop a similar map nationally.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said McCormick's statement that "Broadband is no longer a luxury but a necessity" should be put on billboards everywhere. "Agriculture represents the largest focal point of why broadband is so necessary in rural communities," she said.
Cantwell later added the economy of rural America could be left behind if broadband access isn't available.
"We're just leaving a lot of innovation behind, a lot of economic growth behind if we're not servicing it," she said.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said mapping needs to show if broadband wireless access is available on tracts of farmland and ranchland.
"If we aren't connected to the internet, then that technology is not useful for that farmer," McCormick said.
Others in the industry testified that major broadband carriers provide the FCC with inaccurate data on the Form 477. If one person in a Census block can get high-speed access, then it's treated as if everyone can.
"If you don't have reliable maps, then small carriers won't get access to funds like the Universal Service Fund to expand their coverage," said Tim Donovan, senior vice president of legislative affairs for the Competitive Carriers Association.
This is happening as large urban centers are getting fifth-generation "5G" technology, but many rural communities are still on "3G" technology.
"If you are in rural America and you start to fall behind on your G's, you may never catch up." Donovan said.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis, suggested one way to test the accuracy of maps is to leverage the presence of U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Forest Service offices and workers on the ground to collect more accurate data on broadband service.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said it's frustrating the FCC can't meet the challenge of providing accurate broadband mapping tools.
"I feel like we have been talking about this over and over and over again why we can't get service in different areas," Capito said.
As the Senate Commerce Committee held its hearing, the House passed a bill 232-190 to overturn the FCC's net neutrality rule. The vote was partisan in that only one Republican joined Democrats in passing the bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he won't bring up the Senate bill. Wicker indicated he hoped Congress could move a more bipartisan broadband mapping bill.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, did succeed in getting an amendment added to a House bill on Wednesday challenging the accuracy of FCC's broadband map, citing the map as "inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable."
To see how the FCC designates your farm or home for internet access, go to https://broadbandmap.fcc.gov/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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