US Congress passes broadband mapping bill

US Congress passes broadband mapping bill

The U.S. Congress has passed legislation intended to help the U.S. and state governments collect better data on where broadband isn't yet available.

The Broadband Data Improvement Act, approved by unanimous consent by the U.S. Senate late Tuesday, would require the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to issue an annual report on the availability of broadband across the U.S., instead of current law, which requires the FCC to issue a report "regularly."

The bill, authored by Senator Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, with language included from a bill by Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, requires the FCC to conduct consumer surveys about the availability of broadband and to compare the availability, speeds and price of broadband in the U.S. to 25 other countries. Critics of U.S. President George Bush's administration have complained that the U.S. has fallen behind many other nations in broadband availability, price and speed in recent years.

The bill, which now heads to Bush for his signature, also authorizes the U.S. Department of Commerce to award grants to state governments to create maps showing where broadband is and isn't available. The bill doesn't authorize a budget for that grant program.

The FCC has issued reports on broadband availability in recent years, but critics have complained that the agency's measurements are flawed. In early 2007, FCC issued its most recent report, which said that 99 percent of U.S. postal zip codes had broadband available.

The FCC considered a zip code to have broadband if the service was available to one household.

In addition, critics complained that the FCC's definition of broadband included speeds that don't meet the needs of most broadband users. The FCC classified everything faster than 200K bits per second (kbps) as broadband.

In March, the FCC approved a new broadband mapping plan that would measure broadband availability by Census tract, a geographic area that's typically smaller than a zip code. The new plan will also break out five speed tiers in its upcoming broadband reports, the lowest tier being 200K bps to 768K bps and the fastest tier more than 6M bps.

Several groups praised Congress for passing the Broadband Data Improvement Act unanimously in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

"Every member of Congress has promoted the importance of broadband and the related technologies that are enabled when communities and families have the ability and desire to connect to a world of opportunity," said Brian Mefford, the chairman and CEO of Connected Nation, a nonprofit group working with communities and state governments to roll out broadband in underserved areas.

Mefford praised Congress for passing the bill even as it has pressing needs in other areas, particularly the U.S. mortgage financing crisis.

"One of the hallmarks of American fortitude is that even in the face of divisive debate our nation’s leaders are capable of working together to promote and enable a vision for a better tomorrow," he said. "For the United States, this new broadband policy will mean better education, more jobs, improved health care, more efficient government and a better quality of life accessible for all Americans, regardless of their location or socioeconomic circumstances."

Trade groups USTelecom, the Telecommunications Industry Association and the Independent Telephone & Telecommunications Alliance also applauded Congress for passing the bill. Some telecom carriers have resisted broadband mapping, saying surveys could require them to unveil proprietary market information, but the industry has generally rallied around the bill in recent months.

More broadband deployment will create more jobs, said Peter Davidson, Verizon's senior vice president of federal government relations.

“There is no single entity or one-size-fits-all formula to get broadband to everyone,” Davidson said in a statement. “This legislation recognizes that fact by creating a roadmap for public-private partnerships between governments, business, labor, educators, consumer groups and other nonprofit organizations. Once we determine where the broadband gaps are, these groups can work together to fill them, and get everyone online."

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