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Identifying Broadband Needs with NTIA’s New Public-Facing Map

The National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) released its first public-facing map that combines public and private source data on broadband need. The Indicators of Broadband Need (IBN) tool was derived from the National Broadband Availability Map (NBAM) program.

“The whole goal is to better inform broadband policy and investment decision making,” Tim Moyer, Director of Data & Mapping at NTIA, said during a recent Fiber for Breakfast.

The combination of public and nonpublic data makes the NBAM unable to be shared publicly. However, Moyer explained that the IBN map was designed to bring multiple third-party datasets together to help the public better understand the digital divide and the connection between poverty and broadband access or use.

Each layer gives the option to view county level, census tract and census block data including Microsoft usage, M-Lab and Ookla speed tests, American Community Survey data and information from the Federal Communications Commission Form 477 (which is self-reported data). There are then additional layers with the option to view Minority Serving Institutions, Tribal Lands and more.

The map presents a detailed view of usage and access to the internet across the U.S. Areas with an indicator of need are red while “served” are green and those without data are grey.

When looking at the map using its opening presets, the country is far more red than green, indicating a high percentage of unserved. The FCC has estimated 17 million unserved Americans while the Biden Administration number is closer to 20 million unserved and Microsoft’s data indicates that the number is in the range of 42 million. Moyer said the true answer is probably somewhere in the middle, according to this compilation of research.

“We’re not saying that all of these areas are necessarily unserved. We’re saying there is an indicator of need,” he explained. “It could be that there’s a lack of infrastructure, it could be that there is a digital inclusion challenge. But the bottom line, I think, is this pandemic has shone a light that parts of the country don’t have the same access that other parts do.”

He said this map is a means to highlight that divide and start a conversation.

“There is no silver bullet data set,” Moyer said. “These are indicators of need. They inform the conversation, they are not determinant, but it certainly tells us a little more than the 477 by itself.”

Moyer stressed, however, that the map is to be used as a tool.

“One of the questions we’ve gotten was when a service provider sees a red area that they thought was served,” he recalled. “Our first recommendation is to turn off all of the indicators of need and simply look at the Form 477 data–the self-reported data–to confirm.”

He explained that a red area on the map in a self-reported covered area may not be indicating it’s an infrastructure problem, it could be a digital inclusion issue.

“Some communities don’t use the internet the way that others do,” he said. “So, it’s not painting a finger to say there’s no infrastructure, it’s pointing a finger to say, ‘We’ve got to look into this area more because there are question marks.”

“This public map was designed to identify and help shine a light on the digital divide in regard to both access and use,” Moyer continued, noting how there are strong correlations between the broadband indicators of need map and the poverty dataset later. “So, it isn’t just about where the infrastructure is, it’s about where people are not accessing the internet and what we as federal agencies can do to target that–whether that’s an infrastructure play or a digital inclusion play about the funding that needs to into helping those areas.”

Listen to the full presentation on the Fiber for Breakfast podcast  here.