LightBox beats FCC to the punch with fresh broadband map

US map
The 60 million figure cited by LightBox is more than four times higher than the 14.5 million Americans the FCC said were unserved in its most recent Broadband Deployment Report. (Pixabay)

A new coverage map from LightBox indicated the U.S. might have an even bigger problem with broadband access than previously thought, showing some 60 million citizens remain unconnected.

The map uses colors to depict varying levels of access, with red denoting 1-50% connectivity, yellow 51-80%, green 81-90% and dark teal 91-100%. A zoomed-out view shows large swaths of the country in red and yellow, with green and teal blocks mostly concentrated in metropolitan areas.

Caroline Stoll, head of sales and partnerships for LightBox, told Fierce the map was created by combining the company’s granular location data with information from 2 billion different Wi-Fi access points. The result, she said, is a highly-detailed picture of broadband connectivity across the country.

“It’s an interesting view of who’s connected and who’s not,” she said, adding that by piling on additional layers of data “we have the ability to solve for the adjacent problems, such as affordability, speed and adoption rates as infrastructure is built out.”

The 60 million figure cited by LightBox is more than four times higher than the 14.5 million Americans the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said were unserved in its most recent Broadband Deployment Report. That report included data through the end of 2019. In May, BroadbandNow released its own report which found 42 million Americans lack access to terrestrial broadband.

The FCC’s broadband coverage data and maps have long been a source of ire for many in the industry, given both are used by the FCC and state-level officials to determine eligibility for broadband funding. The agency’s reliance on providers’ self-reported coverage statistics (known as Form 477 data) has repeatedly been highlighted as a key flaw.

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Stoll said a big problem with the FCC’s data is that it uses census tracts to measure coverage. Though each census block can have thousands of residents living in it, it is marked as served if even one structure is able to get internet. That approach "left huge discrepancies in who actually had accessibility and who didn't," she said.

An FCC official recently told Fierce it is in the process of collecting more granular data for fresh coverage maps. However, the release of new maps is likely a year or more away.

LightBox recently worked with the state of Georgia to create a detailed broadband map which layered ISP coverage data from 44 providers on top of LightBox’s location data to find service gaps. Stoll said the national map LightBox just put out isn’t as detailed – but it could be if ISP coverage data and other relevant information is stacked on top of the existing foundation.

“Accessibility is more than just can broadband get to the house or structure. It’s also about is it affordable and are the speeds at the right capacity,” Stoll said. “We have all kinds of other data layers that would be pertinent, like demographics data. So, for example, what’s the median household income for this area and therefore is a $100 internet bill per month even affordable. Because if we build out infrastructure to that area but it’s not affordable, then we’re not really fixing the digital divide.”  

Concerns about the FCC’s maps have been thrust back into the spotlight by the recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction and an expected move by Congress to dedicate $65 billion in federal funding to broadband.

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In June, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) tried its hand at charting broadband coverage, unveiling an interactive map which combined data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), M-Lab, Ookla and Microsoft.