States vie for a short timeline to fix the broadband map

States are racing against a deadline to challenge the map federal officials will use to divide up the nation’s largest-ever investment in high-speed Internet.

At stake is a stake in the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure measure signed into law last year.

States have until Jan. 13 to challenge a broadband speed map released by the Federal Communications Commission last month that, for the first time, charts who has and doesn’t have Internet access down to specific street addresses.

Critics have long suspected that the number of people with internet connections has been overrated by the government, partly because the agencies that create the maps have deferred to telecommunications companies as to where the service is provided.

Extend the service to remote areas with few customers it can be costly for ISPs, but using the wave of new federal funds to fill the gaps largely depends on knowing where they are.

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

“We’ll find out,” said US Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia. “There’s no excuse that West Virginia — every nook and cranny, every person — if they have electricity in their homes, by God they can have internet in their homes, too.”

According to the first draft of this year’s FCC map, 2% of residential addresses in the US have no broadband access at all, and 11% are considered underserved. But these numbers are likely to rise after state challenges.

Previous FCC maps represented broadband availability at the census block level. This meant that if an ISP reported offering broadband to a home within a census block, the entire census block would be considered served.

But Congress in 2020 mandated the FCC to create a more accurate broadband map. He 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 showing every address where broadband could be installed. Then, Internet Service Providers reported what Internet speeds they actually deliver at each address.

To counter anticipated discrepancies, the public can dispute the map, an option that was not available with the FCC’s census block-level maps.

“I like to refer to (the new FCC map) as radar penetrating census blocks,” said Jim Stritzinger, the director of the South Carolina broadband office, which flagged 33,000 state addresses missing from the map.

Mississippi state broadband director Sally Doty said her office found a “tremendous amount” 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 run speed tests and fill out a survey about their Internet service.

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

The Maine State Broadband Office sent engineers to approximately 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 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 the results of the field analysis with data from Internet service 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 don’t have the resources to fully participate.

The Kansas State Broadband Office recently hired two new staff members, bringing the total number to just four. Rather than mass-collect data, the state has focused its efforts on webinars and public awareness to train residents on how to challenge the map on their own.

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

Map challenges may include claims that locations are missing or that the Internet service depicted on the map is actually unavailable. Challenges can be done in bulk, by state or local governments, or on an individual level, where residents confirm information for their address only.

The mapping system used by West Virginia to verify the FCC map was created to provide city-style addresses for large rural areas of the state in order to help emergency service workers respond to 911 calls and other emergencies.

“These maps have been a challenge, and that’s putting it right, for years,” West Virginia Office of Broadband director Kelly Workman said of the FCC’s maps. “Everyone in West Virginia has known for a long time that these maps don’t serve our state well.”

The January 13 deadline has been set so the FCC can resolve the challenges before the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announces the states’ allocations in June 2023.

States will in turn 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 get good service. Entities that take this money will have to offer a low-cost service option. Government regulators will approve the price of such a 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 pressed for the deadline to be extended, but the FCC has given no indication it will move the January 13 date.

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

“What makes it really unfortunate is that we’re trying to support inequalities in service, but we’re inadvertently exacerbating those inequalities by disfavoring more rural or economically struggling states that have lower capacity in their offices?” said Piros de Carvalho. “I think it may be an unintended consequence of these timelines and requirements.”

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Associated Press reporter Leah Willingham in Charleston, West Virginia contributed to this story. Harjai is a corps member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places reporters on local newsrooms to report on hidden issues.