Herald-Whig View

Digital divide blamed partly on faulty maps

Posted: Jan. 31, 2019 9:10 am

THIRTY-SEVEN states that want to expand broadband internet coverage have launched a campaign to expose what they call fraudulent cellphone maps showing overly optimistic coverage areas.

At stake are billions of dollars in federal grants for internet infrastructure that's needed to serve millions of Americans, including many here.

State Rep. Louis Riggs of Hannibal, Mo., recently told The Herald-Whig that Northeast Missouri is "one of the worst-served areas in the state" for high-speed internet, and he plans to make broadband access a priority.

Riggs previously served on the Joint Broadband Committee of the Northeast Missouri Development Partnership. That group learned that many internet providers were having a tough time convincing state or federal officials that they needed help to build high-speed infrastructure because cellphone maps showed the area already had coverage.

"Their maps aren't accurate," Riggs said late last year. He explained that maps are compiled by census blocks, which in sparsely populated areas can be quite large. If even one home in that census block has adequate coverage, the maps make it look like everything within that geographic area is covered -- and funding for improvements gets withheld.

The Federal Communications Commission is conducting its own investigation of cellphone coverage, requiring mobile providers to confirm where their 4G LTE systems provide download speeds of 5 megabits per second.

Accurate data are vital to help establish eligibility for federal and state investments in rural broadband service. Without reliable maps, rural communities may be excluded from funding that's needed to bridge the digital divide. Rural areas continue to lag behind urban areas in mobile broadband deployment, according to the FCC.

Missouri's Farm Bureau has members helping document areas where cellphone service falls far short of 5 megabits per second or where there's no service at all.

High-speed internet is needed to bring rural counties into the 21st century. Getting an accurate accounting of where it is available is a necessary first step.