Fears grow over plan to distribute billions in broadband dollars

State and local officials are raising alarm about what they say are major flaws with a federal map that will guide where the infrastructure money is sent.

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

In several states around the country, officials say they are finding major problems with a crucial, new federal map meant to show the adequacy of internet service at the household level. 

The Federal Communications Commission map, released last month, is critical in determining how the Biden administration will distribute billions of dollars in federal broadband funding from last year’s infrastructure law around the country. But state and local officials say they’re seeing discrepancies that have them concerned the money will not go to the places where it’s most needed to give Americans improved access to high-speed internet.

With a deadline looming in just over a month for states to find inaccuracies in the map that could affect how much of the money they’ll get, some heads of state broadband offices and local officials are saying the federal government should offer more time to find and report problems.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Gregg Weiss, a member of the National Association of Counties’ Broadband Task Force, said the group has discussed asking the FCC to push back the deadline, and could decide to make the request at a meeting next week.

“There is concern over how much time we have and that’s especially true with our more rural counties that have even less resources, and the ability to be able to review the data and respond effectively and accordingly,” Weiss said.

Each state in the nation is guaranteed to receive at least $100 million from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to build or improve broadband networks in areas that lack service.

The concern among state and local officials is that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will use the FCC’s map to decide by June 30 how to spread around the rest of the money, which is the bulk of what’s available. The agency will determine how much each state will get based on the extent to which they have poor internet access.

State and local officials acknowledge that the latest map more accurately shows what parts of the country have, or do not have, adequate service compared to a previous version. But still, state broadband directors and others see significant flaws.

In Vermont, for instance, Robert Fish, deputy director of the state’s broadband office, said in an interview that nearly 22%, or nearly a fourth of the locations in the state, aren’t even on a draft of the FCC’s map, meaning they would not be counted if they have poor service. 

Another 11% of locations in the state on the FCC map do not have recognizable addresses, he said.

“We're very concerned,” Fish said. “The way the map is set up right now, and the way the program is set up right now in terms of allocations, runs the risk of leaving Vermont residents behind. And it's not just Vermont residents, it’s residents everywhere.”

“There needs to be more time to get this right,” Fish added. “This is a generational opportunity.”

In Washington state, broadband director Mark Vasconi said he’s still working with cities and counties to figure out how accurate the FCC map is. But already, he said, researchers he is working with have found a major problem that makes him question the map’s accuracy.

Sixty percent of residences and businesses in one town on tribal land do not appear on the FCC’s map. And since the locations are likely to not have adequate service, not including them could underestimate how much money the state needs.

An FCC spokeswoman told Route Fifty that the agency is committed to fixing as many inaccuracies “as possible” before NTIA decides how much each state will get. 

But to do that, the spokeswoman said the FCC and the NTIA are encouraging states and territories to raise problems with the map “as soon as possible and no later than January 13, 2023 to give them the best opportunity for those challenges to be included in the version of the map that NTIA will use for its allocations.”

NTIA spokesman Charles Meisch stressed the Jan. 13 date isn’t a hard deadline. But he also said that in order to fix any problems before NTIA decides how to spread the money around, it would be best to report any inaccuracies by the date, just a little over a month away.

While Vermont has already filed a challenge with the FCC to fix the problems it has found, Fish said the magnitude of how wrong the map is in his state has him concerned about whether other states and localities will have enough time to find all the inaccuracies that exist within the next month, particularly with the holidays approaching.

Washington’s Vasconi said he doesn’t want to “throw rocks” at the FCC. 

“This map is, I think, a really honest attempt to increase the accuracy,” he said. But because of the discrepancies he’s seen, including the missing homes and businesses on tribal land, “we don't know how incorrect it is, right?”

“I think it's pretty clear from some of our initial examinations, it's pretty wrong,” Vasconi added.

Fish said NTIA should send states the minimum $100 million they are guaranteed. But the rest of the money should not be divvied up until it’s clear the problems with the map are fixed. 

Vasconi agreed, saying that with more time to identify shortcomings, the map will become more accurate. “If you get the map wrong, and you use this version of the map, you're gonna be basing funding decisions and funding allocations on what is the least accurate of these maps because the maps will subsequently be getting better,” he said. “Slow it down to get it right.”

While the broadband dollars will go to states to decide how to distribute, county and city officials are also concerned about the tight timeline. State broadband offices are relying on local governments to help identify problems with the map. But if they’re unable to flag potential inaccuracies in the next month, it could affect how much their states get and pass on to them. 

Gerard Lederer, a broadband consultant who works with the National League of Cities and other local governments, stressed that local officials, particularly in cities, are grateful to the Biden administration for providing the funding. But he said they are also worried about the timeline. “I think a lot of local government officials would like there to be more time, given state broadband offices are saying that they don't have enough time,” he said.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican and a co-founder of the Senate Broadband Caucus, has also raised doubts about the map.

“After careful review, I have some concerns about how these maps represent West Virginia’s coverage,” she said in a video shared on social media, urging people in her state to check the quality of broadband service the FCC says they have and file their own challenge if it’s wrong.

Criticism of the maps extends beyond just what street addresses and geographic areas are and aren’t served.

Jack Lynch, chief operating officer for EducationSuperHighway, said in an interview that the FCC is not checking to see if every unit in an apartment building has adequate broadband service. Instead, he said, it considers an entire building served if service is adequate in one location, which Lynch said could miss people who have poor service and underestimate how many people in a state do not have high-speed connections.

As a result, the map may not illuminate “digital redlining,” in which broadband companies have failed to create strong service in poorer areas, EducationSuperHighway’s director of government affairs and policy, Scott Quinn, said at a conference last week organized by NewDeal, a group of progressive state and local officials. 

“Low-income and public housing buildings may have wiring that goes to the leasing office or to the common area, or a convenience store on the first floor,” he said. “But that doesn't mean that the units in that building actually have that same speed.”

“What we're seeing is that a lot of these buildings in high poverty areas are being marked as served and we know for a fact that they're not,” Quinn added. 

A national nonprofit, which advocates for increasing broadband access, EducationSuperHighway founded the No Home Left Offline Coalition, whose members include the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and African American Mayors Association.

In addition, Vermont’s Fish complained that the map judges whether or not a home or a business has adequate service based on what broadband companies advertise as the available speed in an area. In addition, under the FCC’s procedure, the burden is on those filing a challenge to prove their internet speeds are not adequate, he said.

Fish called it a “half-baked” approach to assessing service.

For example, he said the map shows some rural parts of Vermont have adequate broadband because companies advertise high enough speeds through wireless service. But that may not be what customers actually experience in those areas due to terrain and other factors.

“If you cut down all the trees and maybe blow the top off the mountain,” broadband speeds could be as advertised, Fish said. “It's just not grounded in reality,” he added. “It's grounded in the advertising of these companies that have a big motive to show that they have coverage.”

Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, where this post was first published. 

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