With a key deadline looming and billions of federal dollars on the line, several states are assailing the accuracy of the Federal Communications Commission’s latest maps that display broadband service availability nationwide.
At stake is $42.5 billion in federal infrastructure money that will be disseminated to states and territories to continue to build out access to high-speed internet. If the maps are inaccurate, states are concerned they will be robbed of the federal allocation they are due.
Friday is the recommended deadline for states to submit formal challenges to the maps.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is likely to announce by June 30 how much each state and territory will get in broadband funding. Those decisions will be guided by what the FCC maps show.
Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma and Vermont are among the states that have flagged concerns since the release of updated FCC maps in November. The general complaint is that the maps overstate the availability of coverage.
“When we first saw the maps when they came out in November, frankly we were flabbergasted,” said Rob Fish, deputy director of Vermont’s Community Broadband Board.
Fish said the maps rely too heavily on self-reported data by broadband providers and include at least 20,000 “questionable addresses” in Vermont, which he estimated could cost the state tens of millions of dollars in federal infrastructure money.
“[The map] falls short of anything that realistically shows what is available in terms of reliable broadband or what should be used to distribute these funds,” Fish said.
The internet provider industry acknowledges the maps are a work in progress, but defends the quality of the data.
“We believe that Fiber Broadband Providers have accurately submitted data on the locations that they serve,” said Gary Bolton, CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association.
Bolton added that the coverage issues are more related to services like fixed wireless.
Mike Wendy, communications director for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, said that “on the whole” he believes his association’s members are providing the correct information to the FCC. “We have faith in the challenge process,” Wendy said.
“We just want to get it right so that the least taxpayer waste occurs and the most people who are unserved get online,” Wendy said.
The federal government considers locations that do not have access to 25 Mbps download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds to be unserved by broadband.
Last week, Democratic U.S. Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada sent a letter to FCC commissioners calling the maps “deeply flawed” and said they overstated broadband-serviceable locations in Nevada by more than 20,000.
“These clear discrepancies may result in our state losing millions of dollars in federal funding,” the senators wrote.
The letter asked the commissioners to work with NTIA to extend Friday’s deadline to challenge the maps by 60 days.
Colorado officials said they also requested an extension, which the state says was denied.
“The magnitude of the number of challenges our state needs to submit will be difficult to complete in the short timeframe the FCC gave all states,” said Colorado’s broadband office in an email.
The importance of the Jan. 13 deadline is open to interpretation.
NTIA has said that challenges submitted by Jan. 13 offer the “best opportunity” for the FCC to include any corrections in the version of the maps that will be used to decide how much funding states receive.
The FCC said it “will continually improve and refine the broadband availability data” as challenges from individuals, local governments, tribes and states are submitted.
But internet providers have the opportunity to refute challenges, and states are worried there will not be enough time to ensure the FCC map is accurate before the NTIA allocates the $42.5 billion in Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program funds.
“It’s so important to get the maps right, and our maps are not really there yet,” Kelly Schlegel, director of New Mexico’s broadband office, told Source NM in November.
In Washington State, the new maps identified approximately 170,000 users who do not have broadband but live in a serviceable area. State and local officials believe that is an undercount.
“It’s not a hair on fire moment, but it’s certainly a moment of concern,” said Mark Vasconi, director of the Washington State Broadband Office.
Vasconi said the FCC maps failed to properly account for rural areas, especially tribal lands, and for multi-unit dwellings in more urban areas.
But Vasconi said mounting what are known as “bulk challenges” to the maps is not easy because the information is fragmented across local jurisdictions.
Oklahoma hired a contractor to help it gather and sift the information needed to submit its bulk challenges. When the maps were first released in November, Oklahoma officials were alarmed because they showed 100% coverage across the state. That was because one of the maps included satellite-based internet services.
Mike Fina, chair of the Oklahoma Broadband Governing Board, estimated that when satellite providers are eliminated only about 50% of his state has access to high-speed internet.
“I felt like it was a setback right out of the gate,” Fina said of the maps. “We’re very deficient, especially in our rural areas.”
But since then, Fina said the federal agencies have been responsive and that most of his concerns have been alleviated.
“I think we’re going to be in great shape when this is all said and done,” Fina said.
Vermont officials are decidedly less confident.
“The entire process is stacked against the consumers and states,” Fish said. “They’re taking the providers at their word and asking people without resources, without time and in a short period of time to try to push back against a multi-billion-dollar industry.”