12 Days: Broadband Mapping Efforts Ramped up in 2023

FCC staff processed 4.8 million challenges to coverage data and 1.5 million challenges to location data.

12 Days: Broadband Mapping Efforts Ramped up in 2023
Illustration (misspelled words and all) by DALL-E

December 25, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission continued to refine its broadband coverage maps in 2023. The process drew heavy scrutiny because of its importance to state-level allocations for the Biden administration’s $42.5 billion broadband expansion effort.

In 2020, the Broadband DATA Act mandated the FCC create maps that don’t

simply take as fact the inflated coverage claims of internet service providers. The first version of the map was released in November 2022, but the task of mapping every home and business in the United States and determining their broadband access is a daunting one, and the map still included many incorrectly marked locations. 

The commission gave states until January 13 to contest the coverage, but not location, data. Those challenges would be incorporated into an updated version of the map, which would ultimately be used to gauge relative need among states and territories and determine how much BEAD money each would receive. That allocation was slated to be finalized in late June. 

That got the year off to a rocky start, as many states were under the impression that both coverage and location data – the coordinates, addresses, and categorization of homes and businesses – could be challenged before the January deadline. 

Many states and advocacy groups asked for an extension to both the challenge and BEAD allocation deadlines, citing a lack of time and resources to gather correct information. But the FCC held firm and kept the cutoff at January 13.

The commission released a new map in May that incorporated the challenges it had received and its own continued data collection efforts. Almost 330,000 new unconnected locations were represented, and more than 3 million homes and businesses had their broadband availability information corrected.

But states were still underwhelmed. The Maine broadband office said it was “disappointed to see claims of advertised speeds at locations where we know it is not possible to receive that level of service.”

BEAD awards were handed down by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Commerce Department agency tasked with handling the program, on June 26. Nineteen states were slated to receive more than $1 billion to expand broadband infrastructure.

There was still work to be done, though. States would be required by the program to conduct their own challenge processes to further refine FCC coverage data before awarding grants under BEAD. The deadline for proposals on how to administer that process is December 27.

Early bird states submitted their challenge proposal separately 

But some early bird states submitted their challenge proposals separately from the rest of their BEAD implementation plans and got the go-ahead to begin from NTIA: Louisiana, Virginia, and Kansas.

Those states used a template process set up by the NTIA. That template allows for some modifications to existing FCC data. Kansas and Louisiana, for example, are attempting to phase out old infrastructure by designating all copper DSL service as inadequate regardless of what speeds an ISP claims to provide. All three are requiring ISPs to prove their reported coverage for an entire census block group or apartment building if enough residents contest the government data.

According to draft plans that have yet to be approved by the NTIA, every other state in the nation is planning to take up its model process, with many opting for the DSL and area challenge modifications used by the states that have already kicked things off.

FCC issued the third version of its public-facing broadband map

The FCC is also continuing its mapping effort to improve the baseline for future BEAD challenges and other funding programs. The commission released a third version of its public-facing map in November. This time, staff processed 4.8 million challenges to coverage data and 1.5 million challenges to location data.

Louisiana is done accepting challenges and is slated to wrap up adjudication in early 2024. Virginia is not far behind – providers can submit rebuttals through December, after which the state will weigh the submitted evidence and finalize its map. Kansas’s approval came later, and the state is still accepting challenges to FCC coverage data.

Other state broadband heads urged states to over communicate about the process at the Broadband Breakfast Digital Infrastructure Investment Summit in December. Only local governments and nonprofits can submit challenges under BEAD rules, and making sure those entities are prepared will be crucial to getting maps ready for grant applications, they said.

In Maryland, which is planning for its challenge process to start up in February, some county governments lack full time IT departments and will need assistance from the state to be successful, said broadband office director Rick Gordon.

“Once addresses are claimed as served, we don’t have the ability to go back and change that, so we have to be very careful,” he said.

See “The Twelve Days of Broadband” on Broadband Breakfast

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