Elected officials and business leaders across the Midwest hail high-speed internet as the great equalizer in our increasingly digital world.
To fully participate in it, however, one needs access to broadband or fiber connections that remain elusive in far too much of Nebraska. And those hoping to use Federal Communications Commission maps to determine what internet speeds exist in their area could be disappointed by the reality – what’s listed as available at their address very well may not be offered.
That’s why last week’s unexpected announcement from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai that the agency would vote this summer on improving the accuracy of its maps mattered so much for Nebraska.
Perhaps the largest problem with the existing broadband maps is how they break down in rural areas. If a company can provide broadband to just one address in a census block, the FCC’s map shows it as having that service available for the entire census block.
In cities, that’s generally a useful unit of measurement. In sparsely populated areas, though, census blocks can be immense – at least one in north-central Nebraska’s Brown County, for instance, stretches at least 20 miles north to south. In extreme cases, a few census blocks in other states are larger than the entire state of Connecticut.
This disconnect represents the need for more granular data. Though it’s not immediately clear how detailed Pai hoped the new maps would be, he explicitly mentioned requiring providers to report data at a more precise level than the census block. Our hope is that they drill down as far as possible.
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For years, Nebraska lawmakers have unsuccessfully pushed to require internet service providers to list data at the address or parcel level. Plymouth Sen. Tom Brandt took the lead upon his election to the Legislature last fall, introducing a measure to do so that remains in committee.
The Journal Star editorial board praised his bill in February as a means to “provide a clearer picture of the state’s true broadband status.” In that same editorial, we likened the need for rural broadband investments to that of rural electrification in the 1930s.
It’s little wonder, then, that a handful of Midwestern congressional delegations have endorsed the FCC proposal. And with Nebraska’s own map, the Nebraska Broadband Mapping Project, relying upon FCC data since the federal dollars funding it ran out in recent years, the upcoming vote carries additional weight in the Cornhusker State.
The need to invest in rural broadband is no secret to Nebraska or the federal government. But that investment must not be made haphazardly; it has to be done with the best information available.
And that requires a more accurate map, which the FCC, much to its credit, appears very interested in pursuing.