SUMMERLAND KEY, Fla.– Advisors to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission are pushing FCC officials to incorporate modern geographic information systems (GIS) into the process they use to decide which companies and areas of the country should receive help expanding broadband Internet service into rural areas of the United States, two members of an FCC oversight board said.

In the mid 1990s, members of Congress and the administration of President Bill Clinton agreed that sparsely populated areas of the country were missing out on the latest communications advances or paying too much for them. Private companies often lacked economic incentives to venture into rural areas, and the quest for “universal service” became a political rallying cry of sorts. In 1996 Clinton signed a new Telecommunications Act that spelled out how funds from a phone bill tax would pay companies to expand fairly priced services into areas where the cost to customers would be too high, which typically equates to rural areas.

Since then, the FCC commissioners and their staffs have used census data and mathematical models to decide how and where to spend the $4.2-billion rural portion of the Universal Service Fund.

Without sophisticated maps, policy makers have had trouble visualizing mountains or tall pines that might explain why wireless communications are impossible in certain areas, said a member of a board that oversees the FCC’s universal service work. Another member said the FCC has been virtually unable to separate small cities and towns with service from the poorly served rural areas surrounding them, a goal called disaggregation in FCC parlance.

FCC officials have heard presentations about GIS approaches but they have not yet passed judgment on the proposal. “We’re trying to be cutting edge here, and we’re trying to drag people along with us,” said Ray Baum of the Oregon Public Utility Board. Baum sits on the Federal-State Joint Board that oversees the FCC’s universal service work.

Baum said FCC commissioners have not yet warmed to the GIS idea because of cost considerations exacerbated by a new mandate to include cell phone services under the universal fund.

“We’re trying to get them there, but we’ve come up against an [FCC] economic analysis that showed that mandating disaggregation based on GIS technologies would increase the cost of the fund,” Baum said.

FCC commissioners attended a Feb. 20 meeting in Washington in which the GIS proposal was discussed. Commissioners did not return phone calls seeking comment, and an FCC spokesman declined to characterize the agency’s view of the GIS proposal.

Baum and other GIS advocates had arranged for board members to listen to presentations on the GIS topic. David Bodenhamer of Indiana University’s Polis Center in Indianapolis gave an overview of GIS technologies. Jim Stegeman, the president of CostQuest Associates, a small consulting firm based in Cincinnati, explained how his company uses GIS to help analyze the costs of expanding communications networks, including in a test program for the state of Wyoming.

Views differ over the potential usefulness of satellite imagery, in particular, to the FCC. One FCC advisor said it would improve deliberations. “The satellite imagery would be part of what makes the policy decision. People who make policy decisions are greatly helped if you can bring the imagery alive,” said Larry Landis, an Indiana utility official who sits on the board together with Baum.

If the GIS technology were adopted, a policy maker would be able to view an interactive map loaded with terrain details; population data; information on existing telephone networks and the companies that provide the services. The policy maker could then say: “I see why going wireless there is useless because of the topography,” Landis said .

Baum said private telecommunications companies routinely rely on GIS technology to avoid making costly mistakes, and he said the FCC should follow that lead.

“They won’t put up a cell tower without doing some kind of analysis based on these kinds of programs. You can’t go through mountains very easily,” he said.