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FCC Maps Have ‘Misleading’ Satellite Claims, Need Clarity on Challenge Process: Advocacy Group

The commission published the initial draft of its map Friday, unleashing a storm of controversy in the industry circles.

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Photo of Jenna Leventoff from Internet Law & Policy Foundry

WASHINGTON, November 23, 2022 – Advocacy group Public Knowledge alleged in a letter on Tuesday that the Federal Communications Commission’s newly released map includes “misleading” coverage claims of satellite broadband providers and asked the commission to demystify the national broadband map’s bulk challenge process.

The commission published the initial draft of its map Friday, unleashing a storm of controversy in industry circles. While many agree that the map’s granular, location-level model is superior to the previous Form 477–based, census-block model, some worry that much the new map’s data is deeply inaccurate.

“State broadband offices, local communities, and community based organizations have noted a number of inaccuracies in the new broadband maps,” Public Knowledge wrote in its filing, authored by Jenna Leventoff of the advocacy group, and submitted on behalf of her, Harold Feld, and Greg Guice of Public Knowledge.

The group argued the map overestimates the capabilities of satellite broadband. “Satellite broadband, in theory, is capable of serving most locations in the country,” the filing reads. “However, in practice, satellite providers cannot serve the whole country at broadband speeds.”

The NTIA, in its notice of funding opportunity for the BEAD program, classified locations served exclusively by satellites as unserved. In August, the FCC rescinded Starlink’s $885 million grant from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, alleging unreliability. Besides private advocates such as think tank TechFreedom, FCC commissioners Nathan Simington and Brendan Carr have criticized the agency’s RDOF flip-flop. Starlink appealed in September.

Problems with the challenge process

Public Knowledge also took issue with the process by which the public can challenge the maps’ accuracy. “Although eager to challenge those inaccuracies,” it wrote, “Many expressed confusion over the bulk challenge process, with one even noting that they did not think it was possible.” The advocacy group also asked the commission to clarify the treatment of submitted speed test data.

The FCC scheduled a webinar on the bulk-challenge process for fixed-availability data for November 30, at 4 p.m. ET.

Regardless of accuracy, the FCC’s data will shape the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s state-by-state allocations from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, which are scheduled to be announced in June 2023. To ensure challenges are factored into the NTIA’s decision making, the agency has encouraged potential challengers to submit data before January 13, 2023 – less than two months after the map was made available.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

States Face Roadblocks in Challenge Processes, FCC Tries to Facilitate

The BEAD timeline looms large for many who worry that two months is insufficient time to correct the map.

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Photo of Kirk Burgee, chief of staff for the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau

WASHINGTON, November 30, 2022 – As state broadband offices scramble to submit challenges to the national broadband map, the Federal Communications Commission is working to provide much-needed resources to help stakeholders through the often-opaque challenge processes.

The FCC’s new broadband map, released in November, provides location-level data of broadband availability nationwide. The map is comprised primarily of two datasets: a list of all broadband serviceable locations – the “fabric” – and provider-submitted availability data. The accuracy of both can be challenged by the public through designated processes.

The FCC has endeavored to create a consumer-friendly challenge-process, said Kirk Burgee, chief of staff for the Wireline Competition Bureau. “We do try to make the process as flexible and accessible as it can be consistent with getting effective challenges and resolving them correctly,” he explained.

Burgee spoke at an FCC webinar held Wednesday to demystify the fixed-availability bulk-challenge process.

The FCC’s availability data will largely determine the distribution of the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program among the states. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the subdivision of the Department of Commerce which administers the BEAD funds, has advised the public to submit challenges by January 13, 2022, to ensure they are considered for BEAD grants – scheduled to be announced in June.

The immediate stakes of accurate mapping

If the FCC’s data is inaccurate when the NTIA calculates the allocations, some states could be shorted on badly needed funding. Some industry players say the map is concerningly inaccurate, and others say the FCC’s challenge processes may prove prohibitively complex.

Georgia has yet to submit fabric challenges, although it intends to, wrote Joshua Hildebrandt, the state’s director of broadband initiatives, in correspondence with Broadband Breakfast.

“So far, we have encountered a number of hurdles that have made a quick challenge submission difficult to do,” Hildebrandt explained. “Georgia is fortunate to have a considerable amount of data, which helped us create one of the nation’s first public statewide address-level broadband service maps.

“However, even with all of this applicable data in-house,” he added, “The FCC’s process for challenging fabric locations on a one-by-one basis still requires substantial effort and time.”

“The fabric is an enormous challenge, but we are very disappointed in the quality of the fabric and, more importantly, the insistence on using it and moving forward,” David Lukens, Connecticut’s broadband-mapping coordinator, told Broadband Breakfast.

“The FCC’s burdensome challenge process incentivizes…challenges focused only on potential BEAD project area,” he added.

Several state broadband officials told Broadband Breakfast that they have, by necessity, thus far submitted fabric challenges primarily for unserved areas, leaving the FCC’s data for numerous locations in better-served areas uncorrected. Some say, however, that they will submit additional challenges going forward.

The challenge process may work, but some say time is running short for BEAD

Spokespeople for the FCC and CostQuest have routinely acknowledged the errors in the map’s first draft and urged stakeholders to submit challenges to correct them. Some experts, including Scott Wallsten of the Technology Policy Institute, say inaccuracies are inevitable, but the challenge process will largely ameliorate them in time.

The BEAD timeline looms large for many who worry that less than two months – the interval between the map’s November release and January 13 – is insufficient time to correct the map. And like any massive undertaking, smaller entities struggle to keep up.

Kansas’ broadband director, Jade Piros de Carvalho, told Broadband Breakfast her small team lacks the bandwidth to submit a bulk challenge at all. Piros de Carvalho has encouraged her fellow Kansans to submit their own challenge. “Currently the FCC shows KS at about 5 percent unserved. We are more likely closer to 15 percent unserved, and that difference will have a direct negative impact on the dollars we receive,” she wrote Monday.

Maine will take a multi-stakeholder approach that will mobilize communities and regional partners, Andrew Butcher, president of the Maine Connectivity Authority, told Broadband Breakfast. In addition, the state itself plans to submit bulk-availability and fabric challenges by January 13, Butcher said.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Right Track or Wrong Track on Mapping? Panel 2 at Digital Infrastructure Investment

Panel 2 video. Join the Broadband Breakfast Club to watch the full-length videos from Digital Infrastructure Investment.

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Video from Panel 2 at Digital Infrastructure Investment: Moderated by David McGarry, Reporter, Broadband Breakfast, with Bryan Darr, Executive Vice President of Smart Communities, Ookla, Mike Conlow, Director of Network Strategy, Cloudflare, and Jim Stegeman, President, CostQuest Associates.

For a free article summarizing the event, see ‘It Is a Concern’: FCC Contractor Responds to Commercial Conflict Concerns Over Map Challenge Process: CostQuest’s CEO said states need to look at their vendors if they pose a problem challenging FCC map data, Broadband Breakfast, November 17, 2022

Access Premium content for Broadband Breakfast Club members. Login to your account below. Or visit Broadband Breakfast Club to signup.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Commercial Mapping Products Positioned to Compliment, Challenge FCC Map

Commercial mapping products are emerging as complementary resources for both industry and government players.

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Photo of J. Randolph Luening, founder and CEO of Signals Analytics

WASHINGTON, November 21, 2022 – Although the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is statutorily bound to rely on the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map when dividing the $42.5-billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment fund among the states, private sector broadband mappers are positioning their own products as complementary resources for both industry and government players.

The FCC’s map went live Friday. J. Randolph Luening, founder and CEO of Signals Analytics, on Monday told Broadband Breakfast he has already incorporated data from the map into his “Infrastructure Essentials BEAD Toolkit,” which provides block-level coverage data as well as information on population density, income distribution, federal funding programs, and more. Luening said his toolkit aims to integrate all data that is relevant to BEAD-related decision making.

Another company that does mapping, Broadband.Money, is framing its product as a means by which to challenge the FCC’s data. The platform announced Thursday that subscribers can access features that enable analysis of location-level data, multi-unit locations, and anchor institutions.

Earlier this month, the NTIA said it plans to announce BEAD allocations by June 2023 and encouraged the public to submit challenge data by January to ensure they are processed in time to affect funding decisions.

NTIA head Alan Davidson, like the FCC, emphasized the importance of a robust challenge process: “The next eight weeks are critical for our federal efforts to connect the unconnected,” he said.

“The FCC’s upcoming challenge process is one of the best chances to ensure that we have accurate maps guiding us as we allocate major…awards in 2023,” Davidson argued. “I urge every state and community that believes it can offer improvements to be part of this process so that we can deliver on the promise of affordable, reliable high-speed internet service for everyone in America.”

CostQuest Associates, the creator of the fabric, and competitor LightBox also offer commercial mapping services. CostQuest beat out LightBox for the FCC’s fabric contract and staved off LightBox’s attempt to challenge the decision.

Broadband.Money, LightBox, and Broadband Toolkit are sponsors of Broadband Breakfast.

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