What is the FCC’s new broadband map and why is it important?

The Federal Communications Commission on Nov. 18 released an up-to-date map detailing broadband availability nationwide which will be used to allocate $42 billion in federal funds to states and territories to help expand access to affordable high-speed Internet. The agency will update the map every six months with data provided by Internet service providers (ISPs) and allow states, local communities and the public to submit challenges to its accuracy.

As requested by Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act (IIJA), enacted in 2021, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will use the map to allocate Equity, access and distribution of broadband (BEAD) funds. That process will allocate funds based on the number of unserviced locations in each jurisdiction, with additional consideration for the number of areas where it will be most costly to implement the service. The IIJA also requires states to use the FCC map as a basis for any BEAD-funded grant programs they will operate, although policymakers may propose using state-developed maps and additional data to inform final funding decisions.

Experts predict the FCC map will take several iterations before it accurately reflects broadband availability in many areas. But there are concerns about how quickly the map can be improved before NTIA has to rely on it for allocating BEAD funds to states. To make the most of this historic federal investment, states will need to build the FCC map with their own mapping and data collection efforts as quickly as possible.

Understanding the FCC map

The map was built on two distinct datasets: what is known as ‘functional broadband location fabric’ and service availability data sent by the provider. Location fabric shows individual establishments such as homes and businesses that may be using broadband service, while service data shows where ISPs offer broadband service. The agency’s previous attempts to track broadband availability showed only block-level census data and, as a result, vastly overestimated who had service. The agency’s new approach to visualizing facility-level service availability data will create much more granular maps.

To improve the accuracy of these datasets, the FCC also created a process for states, local communities, and the public to challenge location fabric and service availability data. For example, New York announced in October that it did sent out a collective challenge to more than 31,000 locations that were missing from the first iteration, compared to the state’s unserved locations map.

To guide state broadband offices and local officials in this process, The Pew Charitable Trusts along with our partners at the National Broadband Resource Hub hosted a FCC mapping webinar in October that highlighted how states and local officials can participate in this process.

Importantly, the FCC’s newly released map does not yet include these disputed locations. Once location infrastructure challenges have been resolved, updated data will be distributed to vendors ahead of the next reporting cycle, which begins on December 31st. The window for contesting service availability data is now open and submissions will be processed on an ongoing basis.

Potential concerns

While the new FCC map is more granular than previous versions, stakeholders, including vendors and local leaders, are worried about persistent blind spots. First, as the New York challenge suggests, the initial location level used by vendors was missing a significant number of locations, and vendors could not report service at a location if it did not appear on the map.

Second, while public map challenges will be accepted on an ongoing basis, there is a short timeframe in which a challenge can affect the NTIA’s funding formula. NTI recommends submitting challenges before January 13 in order to include it in the version that will be used to set up the state’s BEAD allocation formula, which will be announced by June 30th. may not receive its fair share of funding.

Additionally, the challenge submission process can be complicated and time-consuming, making it difficult for stakeholders to submit valid challenges in time. For example, speed tests, a common tool for crowdsourcing broadband service maps, they are not considered by the FCC as sufficient evidence alone for the map-demanding fixed service, although they will be allowed for the demanding mobile service.

Finally, due to its design, the new map only shows where broadband service is ‘available’, without capturing accessibility or quality of service being offered. This binary definition of Internet access falls short of what the NTIA and the states will need to ensure that every American has reliable and affordable high-speed Internet access.

The new map from the FCC is much more sophisticated than previous ones, but its structure also raises more sophisticated challenges. Improving the accuracy of the map through this first public challenge window, before the NTIA sets its funding allocation for the BEAD program, will be critical to ensuring each state has sufficient funding to make progress in closing the digital divide.

Jake Varn is an associate manager and Lily Gong is an associate of The Pew Charitable Trusts broadband access initiative.