With billions up for grabs for broadband, Texas is asking the federal government for more time to improve access maps

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LUFKIN — More than $42 billion in federal funding for high-speed Internet hinges on a roadmap that state and local leaders say is “clearly” flawed.

Released last month, the map offers household-level insight into those without access to reliable, high-speed internet. Now, as the deadline to challenge the accuracy of the national map quickly approaches, Comptroller says Glen Hegar he asked the federal government for more time.

The Federal Communications Commission released the initial version of the map on November 18 and has given local officials until January 13, 2023 to challenge its accuracy. The map is available online and allows anyone to view location-by-location information about Internet speed and availability, as reported by Internet service providers. Federal funding will be distributed based on which areas have the greatest need according to the broadband map.

Grabbing some of these funds will help Texas strengthen broadband access, especially in rural areas that have become underserved. Texas has lagged other states in broadband, and local officials, business owners and residents say the lack of access has held back their regions and made it difficult to compete in the 21st century economy.

In a Monday letter to the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Hegar — who oversees the state’s broadband development office — asked the federal government to push back by 60 days the deadline to contest the broadband map and to delay the scheduled release of the final map version by another 60 days, until July 14 next year.

“This is clearly an imperfect map,” Hegar said in a statement. ‚ÄúPart of the blame falls on service providers who are overestimating the coverage they provide in their territories. This practice has become so routine that we often don’t notice it, but it will substantially limit competition and our ability to accurately allocate resources to those Texans whose access is inadequate.

An NTIA spokesman said it received Hegar’s letter and is reviewing it.

“NTIA is committed to balancing the urgency of the moment with the need for accurate roadmaps for allocating funds,” the spokesperson said.

In 2021, Congress allocated a historic $65 billion to expand high-speed Internet access through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Of that funding, $42.45 billion will be available as grants to states and territories to help expand your high-speed Internet access.

According to the US Census Bureau, 2.8 million Texas households lack access to broadband. A disproportionate number of these are in rural areas, where low population density deters private companies from installing broadband infrastructure.

It’s precisely those communities that some advocates say are misrepresented on the broadband map.

Ector County Judge-elect Dustin Fawcett said the map appears to be accurate for Odessa, the county seat with a population of 112,483, but appears to overstate broadband access in outlying, less populated areas.

“The reality of what service providers tell us and the reality on the ground don’t match,” said Fawcett. “The map may say you have the ability to access the internet, but it’s not at the advertised speeds and it’s not at a feasible price.”

Fawcett said he has spoken to several Ector County residents whose broadband speeds are significantly lower than those depicted on the maps. Others, she said, may get access to the Internet but at unaffordable prices, sometimes as much as $300 a month.

Some local leaders said the process for challenging the accuracy of the maps was unclear and inaccessible.

Individuals can submit challenges directly through the map interface. But accessing the map interface requires internet access, leaving families without access unable to present a challenge.

“How can I go online to challenge the map if I don’t have access to the map?” said Lonnie Hunt, executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments and a longtime advocate for rural Internet infrastructure. “Again, it’s kind of an example where the people who need it the most are least equipped to challenge it.”

Hunt said he was pleased Hegar had asked the federal government for more time to challenge the maps, which he believes are inaccurate. He said he would use that time to try to present a “mass challenge,” a process by which local governments can challenge multiple venues simultaneously.

Hunt said he’s been discussing that possibility with an engineering firm that could help the region piece together the massive challenge.

“The process for challenging maps isn’t simple or easy, and our local communities just don’t have the capacity to deal with it,” Hunt said. “We’re trying to mobilize resources to provide a challenge, but we need more time and honestly, we need the state to take the lead.”

The Comptroller-managed State Office of Broadband Development was created by the Texas Legislature in 2021.