Microsoft tires of waiting on FCC, creates its own broadband mapping tool

Microsoft has long been a critic of the FCC’s broadband maps, and today the cloud giant released its own new interactive tool to help identify places in the United States that are unserved and underserved.

The tool was created by Microsoft’s Chief Data Science Officer Juan Lavista Ferres and the Microsoft AI for Good Lab. It aggregates public data from the Census Bureau, the FCC, BroadbandNow and Microsoft’s own broadband usage data. It goes census tract by census tract, examining 20 different indicators of digital equity – such as broadband access, usage, education and poverty rates. This data provides an aggregated score of digital inequity in the community.

Microsoft said its tool is necessary because of the inadequacies of the FCC’s maps. It gave the example of Ferry County, Washington, where the FCC claims that only 0.4% of households lack access to broadband. But according to Microsoft, 97% of the county is not using the internet at broadband speeds and more than a third of households don’t have a desktop or laptop to use the broadband available to them.

“The dashboard also confirms what we have long known: the digital divide isn’t just felt in rural areas – it also deeply impacts cities,” stated Microsoft’s Vickie Robinson, general manager of the Airband initiative, in a blog. “In Los Angeles County, where we’re working with partner Starry to expand access to affordable broadband, more than a quarter of residents aren’t using the internet at broadband speeds, and roughly one in five households lacks a desktop or laptop computer, cutting off millions from the digital world."

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Microsoft says the dashboard was created with the best data possible — at a deep level — to assist policymakers in identifying key places within their state so they can direct funding and programmatic investments.

Meanwhile, the FCC is in the midst of a multi-year, multi-million-dollar effort to update its broadband coverage map. But the gears of government turn slowly and rather than waiting for the new FCC maps, several states including Virginia, New York, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Florida have either already released or are developing their own maps. While this might seem like a duplicative effort on the surface, Anna Read, senior officer for Pew's Broadband Access Initiative, told Fierce the state-level maps will complement rather than compete with the new FCC map.