Just before Christmas, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is administering the broadband funds in the infrastructure bill, announced Massachusetts as the final state to receive its portion of the planning funds ($6 million) in a joint press conference with outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the end-of-the-year allocation of planning funds for Massachusetts marked a significant milestone in the federal government’s support of state broadband offices rolling out competitive grant programs to build new broadband infrastructure and an array of other initiatives to close the nation’s digital divide.
All 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have now received these planning funds. In a matter of months, we’ll begin to see plans from around the country, detailing how each state will connect all their residents to high-speed, affordable Internet service.With the broadband-related portion of the IIJA made up of two major funding sources – $42.5 billion in the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program and $2.5 billion in Digital Equity Act (DEA) programs – each state will receive $100 million in BEAD funding, plus an additional amount based on a formula that includes how many unserved and underserved households are in each state.
The initial planning grants from the NTIA are meant to help states navigate the biggest hurdle of the IIJA: submission of a detailed five-year plan to the NTIA on how each state plans to use the money, a major hurdle Congress required in the infrastructure law as a prerequisite to receive the full funding. From the date a state (or territory) was issued the planning grants, they have 270 days to submit a five-year plan.
It’s a daunting task as fledgling state broadband offices with small staffs are tasked with allocating funds and crafting digital equity plans in a domain that has historically been dominated by Big Telecom.
FCC Maps Take Center StageWhile each state has received a set amount of BEAD and DEA planning funds, the amount of additional federal funds each state will get hinges on the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) new broadband availability maps. Historically, the FCC maps have been almost universally criticized for their inaccuracies, which allowed, for example, entire census tracts to be considered “served” by an Internet Service Provider (ISP) if an ISP claimed to serve just one home in that census tract. In effect, it meant that the number of Americans who actually had access to broadband was being drastically overstated.
The 2020 Broadband DATA Act required the FCC to create new maps that don’t simply take the word of ISPs self-reported claims.
The new maps now take into account a variety of other data that seeks to verify precisely which residential and business locations have access to broadband – and which do not. Not only are the new maps intended to help target where best to spend BEAD funds, they will also be used as the basis to determine how much more each state will receive for “unserved” and “underserved” areas.
Aware that the new maps, released in November 2022, would still be riddled with inaccuracies, the FCC opened a challenge window that allows states and individual residents and businesses to flag the agency if the maps indicate broadband is available at an address where it is not.
The deadline for filing challenges is January 13, although some state officials are asking the FCC to extend the deadline to give states and individuals who have been more focused on the holiday season than broadband more time to make sure the final maps are more accurate.
As reported by StateScoop, in New York State alone 32,000 challenges have already been filed. Meanwhile Sen. Joe Manchin said his office has collected information on 2,400 addresses in his home state of West Virginia that are not accurately reflected on the FCC maps, while state broadband officials in Vermont report that 22 percent of unserved addresses in the Granite State don’t even appear on the FCC maps.
While prior location challenges did influence BEAD funding allocations, the FCC has already stopped considering location challenges to update the deeply flawed fabric. Many, including our Community Broadband Networks Team, were surprised to only recently learn this fact. However, availability challenges can still be filed and those challenges will also affect allocation amounts. (A location challenge focuses on whether a broadband serviceable building exists at a particular address. Availability challenges focus on what type of broadband service exists at a particular address).
While a letter to the FCC recently signed by two dozen U.S. Senators doesn’t specifically call on the FCC to extend the challenge deadline, it does express “continuing concerns about the accuracy of the map.”
To ensure the map can be used for decisions about where to direct tens of billions of dollars for broadband deployment, it is critical that these issues be examined and addressed in a systematic and thorough manner.The letter goes on to ask the FCC to update the map more than twice a year and suggests the FCC take into account speed test data. If that data indicates that ISPs are not in fact delivering those speeds to addresses, it “should disqualify the provider from claiming to serve that location.”
Accountability and accuracy must be paramount moving forward. A more granular map will be of little use if there is little confidence in the results and if providers are not accountable for reporting accurately.
Additionally, the Congressional Research Service noted in a recent report that, given how “the accuracy of the National Broadband Map is a key concern for many in Congress,” lawmakers “could mandate an extension of the challenge process timeline for BEAD allocations if it finds that necessary to ensure all stakeholder concerns could be addressed before funds are awarded and distributed. Congress could also consider requiring the FCC to initiate a proceeding to gather public input on the resolution of challenges.”
Even NTIA Chief Alan Davidson has said he was “incredibly uncomfortable” with the Jan. 13 deadline, even as he noted the NTIA is working with states to help them file bulk challenges.
Whether the FCC extends the deadline remains to be seen. In the meantime, we have created short videos and a walk-through guide on how to check the FCC map and file challenges here.
Meanwhile, the NTIA timeline to allocate BEAD funding to the states remains June 30, 2023. Header image of invest computer button courtesy of QuoteInspector.com, Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0)
Inline image of computer with no Internet connection courtesy of Flickr user Ben Dalton, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)