States face a short timetable to correct the broadband map

LOS ANGELES (AP) — States are racing against a deadline to challenge the map federal officials will use to divvy up the nation’s largest-ever investment in high-speed internet.

At stake is a portion of the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Implementation program, part of the infrastructure measure that President Joe Biden signed into law last year.

States have until January 13 to challenge a broadband speed map the Federal Communications Commission released last month that, for the first time, illustrates the haves and have-nots of Internet access at specific street addresses. .

Critics have long suspected that the government has exaggerated the number of people with an Internet connection. in part because the agencies that create the maps have been referred to the telecommunications companies to say where the service is provided.

Expansion of service to remote areas With few customers it can be costly for Internet providers, but using increased new federal funds to fill in the gaps depends a lot on knowing where they are.

West Virginia officials have already filed challenges for 138,000 homes, businesses and other neglected places in the state that they say are missing, and are preparing at least 40,000 more.

“We’re going to find out,” said US Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia. “There is no excuse that West Virginia, every nook and cranny, every person, if they have electricity in their home, by God, they can also have internet in their home.”

According to this year’s first draft of the FCC map, 2% of residential addresses in the US do not have broadband access and 11% are considered unserved. But those numbers are likely to rise after the state challenges.

Previous FCC maps showed broadband availability at the census block level. That meant that if an Internet service provider reported offering broadband to a household within a census block, the entire census block would be considered served.

But Congress in 2020 tasked the FCC with creating a more accurate broadband map. It hired a company called CostQuest, which leveraged tax assessment and land use records, as well as census and geospatial data, to create the underlying map layer that shows each address where broadband can be installed. Internet service providers then reported what Internet speeds they actually offer in each direction.

To counter expected discrepancies, the public can challenge the map, an option that was not available with the FCC census block-level maps.

“I like to refer to (the new FCC map) as census block penetration radar,” said Jim Stritzinger, director of the South Carolina broadband bureau, which reported that 33,000 state addresses were missing from the map.

Mississippi state broadband director Sally Doty said her office found an “enormous number” of missing addresses in high-growth areas of the state, including DeSoto and Madison counties and along the Gulf Coast. . The state launched a website in late November where residents can take speed tests and fill out a survey about their internet service.

“If we have low speeds for an area that is reported as covered, it will allow us to investigate that further and determine the appropriate action,” Doty said, adding that he expects to get 100,000 unique responses via the website before the end of the year. .

The Maine State Broadband Office sent engineers to about 2,500 addresses in populated areas where it predicted broadband technology would likely be misreported. Over the course of two weeks, engineers identified about 1,000 discrepancies between the information on the FCC map and what actually exists in the state, said Meghan Grabill, a data analyst working on the project. The state is combining its results from the field analysis with data from internet providers, the postal service and emergency dispatchers to identify other discrepancies.

While some states are pouring millions of dollars into the challenge process, others say they lack the resources to fully participate.

The Kansas State Broadband Office recently hired two new staff members, bringing the total number to just four. Instead of collecting data in bulk, the state has focused its efforts on webinars and public outreach to train residents on how to challenge the map for themselves.

“We’re taking them step by step,” said Jade Piros de Carvalho, Kansas’ director of broadband.

Challenges to the map may include claims that locations are missing or that the Internet service shown on the map is not actually available. Challenges can be done en masse, by state or local governments, or on an individual level, where residents confirm information for their address only.

The mapping system that West Virginia uses to verify the FCC map was created to provide street-style addresses for large rural areas of the state to help emergency services workers respond to 911 and other calls. emergencies.

“These maps have been a challenge, and he puts that well, for years,” Kelly Workman, director of the West Virginia Broadband Office, said of the FCC maps. “Everyone in West Virginia has known for a long time that these maps are not serving our state well.”

A January 13 deadline has been set for the FCC to resolve the challenges before the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announces the state allocations in June 2023.

In turn, the states will funnel the grant money to various entities, including Internet service providers, local or tribal governments, and electric cooperatives, to expand networks where people don’t have good service. Entities taking this money will have to offer a low-cost service option. Government regulators will approve the price for that service.

Each state will receive a minimum of $100 million, and final awards will be based on several factors, including an analysis of unserved locations, as shown on the FCC map.

Unserved locations are those without reliable service of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.

Officials in some states, including Texas and Vermont, have pushed for the deadline to be extended, but the FCC has given no indication that it will push back the January 13 date.

While acknowledging that the FCC’s new map is a marked improvement over previous versions, Piros de Carvalho, Kansas’ director of broadband, questioned whether the challenge process timeline will leave certain states behind.

“What makes it really unfortunate is that we’re trying to shore up disparities in service, but are we inadvertently exacerbating these inequities by disadvantaged more rural or economically distressed states that have less capacity in their offices?” Piros de Carvalho said. “I think it could be an unintended consequence of these timelines and requirements.”

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Associated Press writer Leah Willingham in Charleston, West Virginia contributed to this story. Harjai is a staff member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on covert issues.

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