The Broadband Breakfast Report for January 2023 lays out the things to know about the challenge process.
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The allocation of billions of dollars of broadband infrastructure money is contingent on the big update to the broadband map of the Federal Communications Commission, which has set Jan. 13, 2023, as the deadline for challenges to a preliminary version released on Nov. 18, 2022.
That deadline is intended to set a timeline for the version of the map — after challenges — that will guide the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a U.S. Commerce Department agency, in divvying out to the states by this June 30 the $42.5 billion from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program, which emerged from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act of November 2021.
As cities raise issues with the current difficulty of putting together adequate resources to accurately challenge the map in time for a January deadline that even the NTIA head said made him feel “uncomfortable,” and as states grapple with conflicts between their mapping contractor and the FCC’s, Broadband Breakfast has laid out the things to know about the challenge process and a summary of how we got here.
Challenges may be submitted in bulk or individually. Bulk challenges must be submitted through the Broadband Data Collection web portal, while individual challenges can be submitted in the map’s web interface. The FCC has said it will accept challenges on an ongoing basis.
The bulk challenge process for fixed availability data is multi-step and can stretch over months. Interested parties can download availability data from the national broadband map’s interface. Although these download files match availability data with unique location identifiers, the FCC does not match them with not addresses or geographic coordinates. To access the latter information in bulk, parties must obtain a license with CostQuest, the FCC contractor.
Bulk availability challenges may be based on three types of information (each listed with its proper code):
(1) Knowledge of infrastructure (e.g., knowledge of the location of a provider’s infrastructure based on building-permit records).
(2) Information collected from individual consumers.
(3) All other challenges (FCC representatives have emphasized that challenges categorized as “other” must be sound and evidence based).
Bulk availability challenges may be submitted for the following reasons (each listed with its assigned code, according to the “Data Specifications for Bulk Fixed Availability Challenges and Crowdsource Data” guidance published by the FCC on Nov. 17, 2022):
(1) Provider failed to schedule a service installation within 10 business days of a request.
(2) Provider did not install the service at the agreed-upon time.
(3) Provider requested more than the standard installation fee to connect this location.
(4) Provider denied the request for service.
(5) Provider does not offer the technology entered above at this location.
(6) Provider does not offer the speed(s) shown on the Broadband Map for purchase at this location.
(8)* No wireless or satellite signal is available at this location.
(9) New, non-standard equipment is required to connect this location.
* There is no code number 7 in the data specifications for the FCC’s challenge.
Challengers should include information on each challenged location in a comma separated value (CSV) format. In addition, to increase their chances of success, challenges should be accompanied by supporting files containing clear, strong evidence. Crowdsourced data — including speed tests — are not considered official challenges and their submission does not require a response from providers, unlike the submission of challenges. Bulk crowdsourced data must also be submitted in one of the three same categories as challenges (knowledge of infrastructure, information collected from individual consumers, and other).
Once a bulk challenge is submitted, FCC staff perform a high-level vetting. If the FCC advances the challenge, the challenged provider has 60 days to accept or dispute it with evidence, either in whole or in part. If the challenge — or any of its parts — remains unresolved, a 60-day resolution period is triggered, during which the provider will contact the challenger to resolve the discrepancy. If a resolution remains impossible, the FCC has 90 days to adjudicate the disputed elements of the challenge. If the commission upholds the challenge, the provider must update its availability data, filed in the BDC system, within 30 days.
The FCC’s first draft of the map, which included data as of June 30, 2022, was created through the BDC program and consists of several pieces. It displays data for fixed and mobile broadband, and users can use its interface to search for data on individual addresses, view data aggregations for states and other geographically defined areas, and download bulk data files.
The fixed-broadband portion of the map consists of two elements: The “fabric” — a dataset created by CostQuest of locations at which fixed broadband “is or could be installed” — and provider-reported availability data.
The FCC directed providers to submit initial coverage data from June 30 to Sept. 1, 2022; data could be submitted by address or in polygon form. Fixed-broadband providers were required to report the locations at which they then provided service as well as locations at which they could perform a standard installation, which is defined by the Broadband DATA Act as “the initiation by a provider of fixed broadband internet access service [within 10 business days of a request] in an area in which the provider has not previously offered that service, with no charges or delays attributable to the extension of the network of the provider.”
The commission allowed providers, state and local governments, and other specified entities access to the fabric in June 2022. To gain access, each entity needed to register and sign a licensing agreement with CostQuest. CostQuest owns the initial fabric data, and the company’s licensing agreements largely restrict licensees use of the fabric to the BDC process. Beginning Sept. 12, entities with fabric access could challenge its data.
Even before the FCC’s map was made public, many in the industry criticized its accuracy and construction. Although the FCC and several industry experts say the map will be quite accurate once cycles of the challenge processes are completed, many others are focused on the possibility that the map will still be highly inaccurate when its data is used to calculate BEAD allocations.
Experts have charged that the FCC and CostQuest disclosed too little information about how the fabric was constructed and said it should have been made available to the public long before it was. What’s more, once the fabric was released, several states reported tens of thousands or more locations missing — Georgia estimated 220,000 missing un- and underserved locations. Observers have reported that the fabric is particularly inaccurate in rural areas, newly built areas and on Tribal lands.
Federal legislators have expressed concerns that data for their states is flawed. In December, a bipartisan coalition of senators urged the FCC to address the map’s inaccuracies “in a systemic and thorough matter.” That same day, the full Georgia congressional delegation asked the FCC and NTIA to delay BEAD deadlines to allow more time for challenges. Vermont’s congressional delegation also requested a delay, and several senators criticized the map’s inaccuracies during a Senate hearing.
Many state broadband officials have said that the challenge processes are difficult and complicated. Several state officials have said that to efficiently use scarce resources, they will primarily submit fabric challenges in largely unserved areas. Kimball Sekaquaptewa, chair of the Connect New Mexico Council, told a Senate subcommittee that her state would “absolutely not” be able to fully complete its challenges by Jan. 13. Kansas’ broadband director, Jade Piros de Carvalho, told Broadband Breakfast that her small and underresourced office would submit no fabric challenges. Another state official told Broadband Breakfast that the official’s state would submit no availability challenges due to resource limitations.
Adam Carpenter, chief data officer in the State of Montana, said at a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event in October that his state is contractually barred from fully participating in the fabric challenge process. Carpenter’s complaint was featured in a Congressional Research Service report, “FCC’s National Broadband Map: Implications for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program,” which stated that “states may not end up challenging the National Broadband Map — or if they do challenge, they may violate their contract and face legal jeopardy. Some state third-party data vendors may also be concerned that the FCC’s third-party vendor that developed the underlying data structure of the National Broadband Map could use data submitted from states in the challenge process for its own commercial use.”
Carpenter laid out his dilemma as such: Montana relies on proprietary mapping data obtained from its state vendor, LightBox. CostQuest, per its FCC license, may use data submitted in the fabric challenge process in its commercial products. Thus, if Montana submits LightBox-obtained data to the FCC, that data could be used by CostQuest, in violation of the state’s agreements with LightBox. The State of Texas, another LightBox partner, has yet to submit challenge data to the FCC for the same reason. LightBox has met with the FCC to resolve the issue, a senior company executive told Broadband Breakfast.
CostQuest CEO Jim Stegeman, when questioned on the matter during a panel at Broadband Breakfast’s Digital Infrastructure Investment conference in November, put the onus on LightBox. “It is a concern, but I’m not sure how you address that concern,” he said. “It is not necessarily the FCC’s issue — it’s really those third parties who present issues to the states.”
Meanwhile, many states have built or are building state broadband maps. Virginia, like several other states, developed a fabric-based broadband map. North Carolina implemented an alternative speed test model. Illinois officials have said collaboration with a wide range of partners was essential to the state’s broadband-mapping success. However, state broadband offices vary in experience, resources and personnel, and the sophistication of their mapping data varies as well. Some states — e.g., Virginia — have well-developed mapping initiatives, but others lack state broadband maps altogether.
BJ Tanksley, director of Missouri’s Office of Broadband Development, said in August that his state is “hopeful that its maps will be useful in challenging the FCC’s maps… we believe our maps will allow us to challenge, when necessary, to improve the accuracy for Missouri.” This sentiment was echoed by Rebecca Dilg, director of the Utah Broadband Center, in a conversation with Broadband Breakfast.
Because state officials must design BEAD sub-grant programs, many states’ maps will likely factor heavily into the final distribution of BEAD funds to broadband deployment and related projects. State mapping may prove even more significant if analysis of the national map validates concerns that the FCC’s data are deeply inaccurate.
In addition to states, private sector mappers are leveling up their products. Commercial mappers — e.g., BroadbandToolkit.com, Broadband.money, GEO Partners, LightBox,* and CostQuest — market a range of products, often to governmental as well as private entities.
* The former four are sponsors of Broadband Breakfast.
Congress directed the FCC to create a location-level national broadband map in the Broadband DATA Act of 2020. The legislation directed the FCC to semiannually collect coverage data from providers, create a “fabric” (the dataset of locations on which the current map is based), and institute a process by which by state, local and tribal governments, as well as the public, could dispute those availability and location data.
At that time, however, the FCC’s broadband mapping was based on Form 477 filings from providers and provided data at the census-block level. Under the Form 477 regime, a census block was considered served if a provider claimed a single served location in it — leading to widespread accusations that the FCC serially overcounted service.
The FCC established Form 477 in 2000, originally collecting data on local telephone, mobile telephony and broadband services. Broadband providers were required to disclose the number of connections they provided by state, the technology of each connection and other information. The FCC kept tabs on connections with speeds better than 200 Kilobits per second (Kbps). Over the years, the commission revised the Form 477 rules to require more data from providers.
The FCC in 2013 began collecting deployment data as well as subscription data, and required each provider to submit a list of the census blocks they served as well as the maximum service speed offered in each block. In 2019, the agency created the Digital Opportunity Collection Order, intended to granularly map fixed broadband deployment. This effort, delegated to the Universal Service Administrative Company, was to be distinct from Form 477 collections.
In November 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the IIJA, which allocated about $65 billion for broadband-related projects. The bulk of this money was invested in the NTIA’s BEAD program. With allocations scheduled to be announced by June 30, 2023, BEAD funds will be divided among states and territories, largely based on the number of “unserved” locations in each, calculated based on the new broadband map’s availability data. Unserved locations are defined as locations without access to reliable broadband service of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) down and 3 Mbps up.
Once the NTIA issues BEAD grants to the states, however, state officials will have wide latitude, within certain parameters, to design and operate subgrant programs that will allocate funds to eligible broadband deployment and related projects.