Opinion

New Broadband Maps Are Coming. They’ll Be Useless Unless We Also Invest in Research and Analytical Capacity.

By Sarah Oh & Scott Wallsten
July 22, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

We’re about to fall into a trap that almost entangled the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan task force a decade ago.

The task force had access to some of the best broadband data available. As economics director for the plan and data nerd, Scott Wallsten was over the moon. But the team soon encountered a problem. Not a single computer in the building could open the datasets. It took months for the task force leader, Blair Levin, to convince the powers-that-be to fund the small computer upgrade necessary to use the data.

That story is partly about farcical government IT procurement rules. But it also highlights the tendency to underestimate the resources needed to use new data acquired at great expense.

We’re hurtling down that same road today, only on a much bigger scale, and we can’t course correct with a small computer upgrade.

New, more accurate and detailed broadband maps are on their way. The telecom policy crowd fervently hopes the data upgrade will help us better address digital divides and other issues. But maps and data alone won’t solve anything.

Skill, expertise and time will all be required to study and use the new maps, and the resources required grow as the datasets become larger and more complex. Data scientists and researchers will need to ingest and clean the new data, visualize geographic shapes, build models, run regressions and more. This work involves cloud computing infrastructure and geospatial analysis tools, as well as statistics and econometric tools already in use.

What a shame it would be to collect the data and be unable to use it. Sort of like buying a Ferrari engine without the rest of the car. That engine can move a car from 0 to 60 in under three seconds, but without complementary parts and infrastructure, the engine is mostly an interesting curiosity.

Sarah Oh argued in a recent proposal to the FCC that the 5G Fund for Rural America should include a small amount to fund the research and analysis necessary to use the new maps. Specifically, she suggests that 1 percent of the proposed $9 billion — approximately $9 million per year for 10 years — could be used to fund this research.

The FCC’s own economics staff could use some of these resources, while some should go to independent scholars in order to avoid conflicts of interest that may arise when an agency is in charge of evaluating itself. This research fund, which represents less than half a percent of total annual USF spending and less than half the amount spent on USF administration, could yield substantial new insights, particularly if allocated to academics who could, for example, direct studies by graduate students on a host of issues.

The 5G Fund notice of proposed rulemaking itself highlights the necessity of a research fund. For example, the FCC asked commenters whether to consider six additional datasets, how to select an optimal population density threshold, and which geographic dataset to use among three sets of census shapes. These and other questions are important because the answers will determine how funds are distributed. But each question takes time to answer intelligently, and the FCC should have competing reports to guide its decisions, including ones not funded by interested parties. Unfortunately, only parties with an interest in the outcome currently have the resources to invest the time and effort in rigorous analysis of those questions.

In the spirit of A/B testing, the FCC could consider an “Option A/B” in its 5G Fund for Rural America proceeding. The FCC may find the time opportune to do more than choose between Option A to deploy funds in 2021 and Option B to wait to deploy funds until after new broadband maps are released in 2023. The FCC could innovate in its approach to broadband policy by creating a research fund to enable scholars to start preparing the tools needed to examine the new broadband maps as soon as they are available.

We’re all committed to new data. Let’s also commit to using it well.

Scott Wallsten is president and senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute. Sarah Oh is senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute.

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Correction: A previous version of this piece misstated the amount proposed to fund research and analysis due to inaccurate information provided by the contributor.

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