Form 477 Guide for WISPs and Small ISPs

This section provided by BroadbandNow.

Form 477 - What is it and why does it matter?

Put simply, Form 477 is used by the FCC to determine which providers are servicing which areas. The information reported using the form is categorized by US census tract and block, and it is the government’s main source of data used for identifying underserved areas of opportunity (as required by the Telecommunications Act of 1996).

Form 477 data used to be visually accessible for potential customers via the National Broadband Map, until that project was defunded in 2014. Currently, Form 477 data is used to power broadband search tools like BroadbandNow. These search engines can be a major customer acquisition channel for small WISPs in particular, so it’s worth the effort to file coverage data correctly.

If you are starting a WISP, this may seem like just another hoop to jump through to get yourself operational, but the truth is, Form 477 can have a massive impact on your business over time. The FCC uses Form 477 data to decide which companies should and shouldn’t get grants and funding to service needy areas. WISPs who neglect to file are invisible, making it possible for larger ISPs to move into their coverage area and compete with government grant money to back up their efforts.

In this section, we’ll break down some of the most common questions and concerns we get from WISPs and small ISPs across the country.

Is Form 477 required for all ISPs?

Form 477 is required of all companies offering broadband or voice services in the US. Broadband, in this case, is defined as any service point capable of delivering speeds faster than 200 Kbps up or down. The speeds actually delivered on a daily basis are immaterial to the requirements.

Still, if not filed, the minimum penalty based on precedent is $3,000. It is within the FCC’s power to impose additional fees of up to $160,000 per day or per individual violation, with a max upper limit of $1,575,000. You may also be precluded from bidding on Connect America funding if you fail to report on time.

In our experience, wrist-slapping is mainly pursued at the state level, with California being the primary state that proactively enforces the mandate.

Common Misconceptions When Filing

Because the FCC filing process can often be vague and daunting for new operations, we felt it would be helpful to go through some of the common pitfalls we’ve seen WISPs run into during the process. There’s a lot to do, and not a lot of direction for actually doing it, so hopefully this can help clear up a few points.

Accuracy matters for deployment data.

One of the most common problems WISPs run into when first filing their Form 477 data is that they rely on their accounting software to deliver both broadband subscriber data and deployment data. This is a mistake, and it can cost you down the road. Why?

Think of it this way: if you’re not accurately reporting your presence in a given area, the FCC may proactively offer competing providers subsidies in these areas, granting them full license to compete on your home turf. To avoid this, you need to not only provide good fixed broadband subscription data, but also accurate, comprehensive deployment data as well.

Subscriber data vs. deployment data; an important distinction.

Subscriber data represents the active customers you currently serve. This is one piece of what the FCC requires from broadband providers, alongside your deployment data, which details the actual areas you are capable of serving.

The latter requires a greater degree of granularity (requiring you to drill down into each individual census block that you operate within), and many new WISPs have a difficult time parsing the necessary data effectively.

Census blocks vs. census tracts; what’s the difference?

A census block is a small area often delineated by physical borders, such as streets, rivers, and railroad tracks, though they may also be marked by non-visible borders like property, city, school district and county lines. Census blocks are often grouped together, usually containing anywhere from 600-3,000 individuals. Census blocks used for reporting deployment data.

Census tracts, on the other hand, were first used in the 2000 census, and are formed by making various subdivisions of county populations, which is done by participants in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Participant Statistical Areas Program. Various census block groups make up a given census tract, which often includes between 1,500 and 8,000 individuals. Census tracts are used for reporting subscriber data.

Data privacy; what the FCC does with filings

As of now, you are only allowed to request anonymity when it comes to individual subscriber data. Even then, state agencies are able to obtain it upon request, and aggregated subscriber info is periodically released directly by the FCC. Deployment data is publicly available down to the individual census block, which is the reason why accurately reporting it is so important. You want potential customers to be able to find you easily on sites that display this data, such as BroadbandNow, Business Internet, etc, since they can be a major customer acquisition channel.

How often do you have to file?

Filing for both fixed broadband subscription and deployment data must occur twice annually, initially by March 1st for data points gathered through December of the year prior, and then again by September 1st for all data gathered as of June the same year. The FCC has discussed revising the frequency of these reports in the past, so it’s always a good idea to keep your ear to the ground on any potential policy changes.

Gathering the data

Data collection is one of the more elusive aspects of filing Form 477, and it often leaves new WISPs struggling with how to proceed. In this section, we’ll take a high-level look at the methods used to actually generate the data, as well as how to properly format it according to the FCC’s standards.

Methodologies

For broadband subscription data, most companies simply rely on their accounting software suites to generate the necessary information. Because this report is centered around active customer accounts, this is often the easiest way to aggregate the data into the format required by the FCC. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll still have to identify which census tracts these subscribers fall into.

For deployment data, you need to be able to define the areas in which you currently have coverage potential, instead of just those that you have active subscribers. This is often done via some form of geotagging, which usually involves the use of GPS, satellite imagery, LIDAR, or RF propagation models. Frequently, gathering the best data possible requires the use of multiple methods, and the process itself can be anything but intuitive. The FCC’s resource page for generating fixed broadband deployment data is a good place to start.

Formatting

When you’ve generated the necessary subscription and deployment data, you’ll need to convert it into the format required by the FCC for filing with Form 477. This can be a tedious process, but it can be made much simpler with a bit of preparation. Let’s break down each set of data individually to understand how you’ll submit them.

Broadband subscription data: This is submitted in the form of a plain text document. It requires six different fields to be filled out for each census tract:

  • Census tract code
  • Technology transmission type
  • Advertised upstream bandwidth
  • Advertised downstream bandwidth
  • Connections
  • Customer connections

When properly filled out, it should end up looking something like this: CSV Example

For more examples of a completed subscription data document, as well as a detailed breakdown of each data field, use the FCC’s fixed broadband subscription formatting guide.

Broadband deployment data: This is also submitted in a similar plain text-based document, though there are additional fields that are required:

  • Census block code
  • Provider’s DBA name
  • Technology transmission type
  • Consumer connection (yes or no)
  • Maximum advertised consumer upstream bandwidth
  • Maximum advertised consumer downstream bandwidth
  • Business/government connection (yes or no)
  • Maximum contractual business upstream bandwidth
  • Maximum contractual business downstream bandwidth

When completed properly, this ends up looking similar to subscription data, albeit with additional codes:

CSV Example

As with the subscription data above, the FCC offers a fixed broadband deployment formatting guide as well.

How to file

1. Obtain an FRN (FCC Registration Number)

You can register for one right here. If you have an Employer Identification Number or Taxpayer Identification Number, you’ll need to enter it when registering.

2. Check once more for accuracy

Do one final overview of the data you’ve collected. Does your deployment data represent the areas you can actually serve as accurately as possible? For instance, double check that everything is consistent from a formatting standpoint using the guides linked above. Also ensure that there aren’t any notable discrepancies, such as a deployment file that doesn’t reflect an area where you submitted a census tract code in your subscription data. FCC staff spot check these reports when aggregating them, and though perfection isn’t always realistic, ensuring that it’s as close as possible is in your best interest.

3. Submit using the included portal

Follow the steps on the FCC’s Filing Portal to submit your Form 477 data. There is currently no other accepted way to submit broadband data, such as in writing. Keep in mind, you can use this portal to revise your data at any time, if you find an error after the fact, or modify your operational capacity in any meaningful way.

Filing Resources

Here are some additional resources provided by the FCC that you can leverage during the Form 477 filing process.