New national broadband map offers granular look at service and gaps

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The draft release kicks off a process where states, localities and the general public can challenge inaccuracies. The new data will be crucial in guiding how the federal government divides billions in broadband funding between states.

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday released an initial draft of a national map showing in greater detail than ever before what locations in the country have broadband service.

The move is a major step toward making sure roughly $42 billion to increase high-speed internet service that was included in last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law goes to the places that need upgraded connections the most. The prior map used to distribute federal dollars has been criticized because of its lack of detail about service availability. 

“What happened was that if there was even one location within a census block that was served, that counted the whole census block as served,” and not eligible for funding, Elizabeth John, an associate partner at the consultancy McKinsey & Co., explained in an interview.

Congress ordered the FCC in 2020 to take a more granular approach. The new map that the agency came up with attempts to show whether or not every location in the country has service.

The update comes at a critical time. The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is planning to allocate $42.45 billion from the infrastructure law’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program to states on June 30.

States, localities, and even the general public, now have less than two months to challenge the map’s accuracy before NTIA uses the data to divvy up the billions in broadband funding between states, based on what percentage of their residents lack high-speed internet. The agency recommended last week that challenges be filed with the FCC by Jan. 13 in order for them to be considered in time to affect how the money is spread around.

By having the more specific data, areas that had not been able to get broadband funding before may now be eligible, said Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow, a consumer advocacy group that uses FCC data to study the state of broadband in the country.

“Hopefully it will mean that we see some areas flip green that used to be red,” he said.

Adi Kumar, senior partner at McKinsey added that the prior map “being at the census block level created large inaccuracies about where broadband service exists and where it doesn't.” 

FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel hailed the significance of the new map. “By painting a more accurate picture of where broadband is and is not, local, state, and federal partners can better work together to ensure no one is left on the wrong side of the digital divide,” she said in a statement.

The initial draft of the map released on Friday is based on data from internet service providers. But anyone can check their addresses and see if it accurately shows whether they have broadband service. If the map is incorrect, people can file a challenge. Those tracking the process with the maps said that this is a significant change.

“I think there's a real democratizing to this process,” Kumar said. “I kind of view it as like the broadband census in a way,” he said. Rather than the distribution of funding being based largely on data provided by broadband providers, he added, “everyday Americans are going to be able to raise their hands and say ‘I do or I don't have access.’”

With the amount of money her state will receive on the line, U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, urged her state’s residents to do just that.

Capito, who co-sponsored the 2020 law requiring the FCC to collect more detailed service data, tweeted that she has concerns with how the maps represent West Virginia’s coverage. 

“Please visit the @FCC's map page to make sure your address is accurately represented,” she said in another tweet

With such a tight turnaround to file challenges, broadband officers “should be working now to ensure that locations are accurately represented on the map, and that the service availability at those locations is represented, in order to have the most accurate information informing the funding formula for the program,” said Anna Read, a senior research officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Access Initiative. 

(The initiative co-hosted a webinar in October advising states and localities on how to challenge the draft map.)

Some places, like New York state, are already on their way to challenge locations the map says have service. 

New York lawmakers in 2021 required the state’s Public Service Commission to create its own map based on data from broadband providers and by allowing the general public to enter their own information. The state in October challenged prior FCC data, saying that 31,000 locations deemed to have access to broadband were either unserved or underserved. State officials said they will now compare the state’s own map to the new FCC map.

Other areas aren’t quite as prepared. 

“State broadband offices should take the challenge process very seriously, and work with communities who may have a harder time developing challenges on their own,” said John, with McKinsey. “In particular, I think that should be the case with rural communities where we know that digital divide is a far greater issue than in urban and suburban areas,” she said. 

But she also pointed out that “the workload right now for state broadband offices is quite high.”

The new data also gives states and localities a better idea of how much infrastructure money they might get so that they can begin planning for how to use the dollars. That might mean weighing the costs and benefits of options like building out fiber, fixed wireless or satellite networks.

Kumar said the maps will be a significant step toward understanding the nation’s broadband gaps. “We don't have a great understanding of this,” Kumar said.”I think we're going to have a much better understanding of where people actually have the opportunity to access broadband.”

 Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.

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