Editor’s note: This column is written by Jeffrey Sural, Director of the Broadband Infrastructure Office at the North Carolina Department of Information Technology. This is part one of a multi-part series exploring the current state of broadband access, adoption and use and the current and needed policies and programs aimed at increasing its availability and utility throughout the state.

The most current map of broadband availability in North Carolina shows that 93.7 percent of North Carolina households have access to broadband. This implies that most North Carolina households should be able to effortlessly connect to the internet and without too much waiting or delay: run a small business, stream video, complete homework assignments, communicate with friends and family and play video games.

Image Credit: NC Broadband Infrastructure Office

But interactions with citizens from all parts of the state have led our office to believe this figure—93.7 percent—is wildly inaccurate. Drive a few miles outside of downtown Raleigh or talk with people from a rural community and you’ll quickly find that 93.7 percent of North Carolinians can’t possibly have access to broadband (defined by the Federal Communications Commission as 25 Megabits per second download speed and 3 Megabits per second upload speed) at these speeds. And indeed, they don’t.

The same is true across the country, though. The data is overstated nationwide. Given this, it’s fair to wonder why the inaccuracy of the maps matters. If everyone’s data is wrong, why do we care that North Carolina’s is? The answer lies in the billions of dollars appropriated annually to fix the broadband problem. Federal funding programs allocate their funding based on the FCC data. Most of the funding programs require that an area be “unserved” to receive funding. If the map shows your neighborhood has service, even if it doesn’t, it won’t be eligible for money to build or extend service to your area. Thus, if you don’t have broadband now, but the map says you do, you won’t likely get it in the future. To understand why the data is inaccurate, it is helpful to understand the broadband data collection process.

Why the Maps are Bad

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the primary aggregator and distributor of broadband availability data for the federal government. The FCC derives its data through information the internet service providers — the cable, telephone, cellular and satellite companies that bring the internet to your home or business — submit biannually. Each provider files a list of census blocks — fixed geographic areas varying in size and population — in which they can or do offer service and its maximum advertised speed.

The source of the data’s inaccuracy comes from this: If one home or business in a census block can receive the maximum advertised speed, let’s say 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download, then every house in that census block is counted as having service at that speed.

For example, if there are 100 homes in a census block and one of those homes can receive internet service at broadband speeds (25Mbps upload/3Mbps download), the other 99 homes are counted as having access to that same service even if they don’t.

In addition, the FCC uses census block population data from the 2010 Census, which is nearly nine years old. You can quickly see how this 93.7 percent statistic becomes highly suspect. However, currently, it is the only data we have to track broadband deployment statewide and nationally.

North Carolina Broadband Mapping Efforts

In North Carolina, we have been frustrated with the existing data collection and analysis method, so we have launched several efforts to build a more accurate map.

First, we are aggregating data from various sources to create a more comprehensive and accurate map. We do this by taking the FCC data and overlaying it with additional data, including locations where telephone companies have received federal funding to provide service. We then use satellite imagery and state parcel data to identify locations not served through the ISP’s federally funded expansions. We partner with other state agencies, such as the Department of Transportation, to map key infrastructure. And we maintain a database of all vertical assets (water towers and towers) in the state.

Image Credit: NC Broadband Infrastructure Office

Second, we subscribe to commercial services that help identify the location of fiber optic cables and cell phone towers and other infrastructure. These tools help our technical assistance advisors locate communications equipment and infrastructure when developing solutions for communities and internet service providers working to connect unserved areas.

Third, we have created an online speed reporting map. Any North Carolinian can visit our map, enter their address, and take a speed test. We receive the data and plot it on the map. If there is no service at the respondent’s household or business, they can simply click a box, enter their address from work, a library or mobile device and we’ll plot that location.

Image Credit: NC Broadband Infrastructure Office

Fourth, we are working with smaller providers and middle-mile providers, such as MCNC, to map their infrastructure and locations served.

Fifth, we’ve entered into a partnership with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, to locate additional data sources and identify means of analysis to create a more accurate map.

Finally, our office was recently tasked to administer the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) rural broadband grant program. Internet service providers requesting grants will be required to provide specific location information for the homes and business they plan to serve. This data in turn informs our map.

The simplest and most straightforward means of building a better map would be to receive address-level location information from the internet service providers. However, broadband is a competitive business and many companies protect this data, claiming the data is competitively sensitive and proprietary.

Despite the challenges to accurately identifying where true broadband service is available, we feel confident that over time we can locate the homes and businesses without reliable, affordable high-speed internet and arrive at an accurate statistic for the number of North Carolinians connected to the internet. This will help us to efficiently plan and use public and private resources as we work toward eventually connecting all North Carolinians.