States struggle with a short timeline to fix the broadband map

LOS ANGELES (AP) — States are racing against a deadline to challenge the map federal officials will use to divvy up the nation’s largest investment in high-speed internet.

A portion of the $42.5 billion broadband equity, access and deployment program, part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure measure, is at stake enacted into law last year.

States have until Jan. 13 to challenge a broadband speed map the Federal Communications Commission released last month that, for the first time, illustrates those who do and do not have internet access to specific addresses.

Critics have long suspected that the number of people with an internet connection has been exaggerated by the government, in part because the agencies that create the maps have deferred to the telecommunications companies to say where the service is provided.

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

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

“We’re going to find out,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. “There’s no excuse for West Virginia — every corner and every person — if they have electricity in their house, by God they can have internet in their house.”

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

Previous FCC maps showed broadband availability at the census block level. That meant that if an internet service provider reported that it offered broadband to a home within a census block, the entire census block would be considered served.

But Congress in 2020 tasked the FCC with creating a more accurate broadband map. He hired a company called CostQuest, which leveraged land use and rate records, as well as census and geospatial data, to create the underlying map layer that shows each address where broadband can be installed. Then the internet service providers reported what internet speeds they actually offer at each address.

To counter expected discrepancies, the public can challenge the map, an option that was not available on the FCC’s census block maps.

“I like to refer to (the FCC’s new map) as census block penetration radar,” said Jim Stritzinger, director of South Carolinathe Broadband Office of , which reported 33,000 state addresses missing from the map.

mississippiState 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 take speed tests and fill out a survey about their internet service.

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

MaineThe state broadband office sent engineers to about 2,500 addresses in populated areas where it predicted broadband technology was likely to be misreported. Over the course of two weeks, engineers identified approximately 1,000 discrepancies between the 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 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 lack the resources to fully participate.

KansasThe state broadband office recently hired two new staff members, bringing the total number to just four. Instead of collecting data in bulk, the state focused its efforts on webinars and public outreach to train residents how to challenge the map.

“We’re going through it one step at a time,” said Jade Piros de Carvalho, Kansas’ director of broadband.

Challenges to the map may include claims that locations are missing or that the Internet service shown on the map is not actually available. Challenges can be made in bulk, by state or local governments, or at the individual level, where residents confirm information for their address only.

The mapping system West Virginia is using to check the FCC map was created to provide urban-style addresses for large rural areas of the state to help emergency workers respond to 911 calls and other emergencies .

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

The Jan. 13 deadline was set to allow the FCC to resolve the challenges before the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announces state allocations in June 2023.

The states, in turn, will 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 have good service. Entities that take this money will have to offer a low-cost service option. Government regulators will approve the price of that service.

Each state will receive a minimum of $100 million, and final allocations will be based on several factors, including an analysis of underserved 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 Vermonthave pushed for the deadline to be extended, but the FCC has given no indication that the January 13 date will be pushed back.

While acknowledging that the FCC’s new map is a marked improvement over past versions, Piros de Carvalho, Kansas’ broadband director, questioned whether the timeline for the challenge process will leave certain states behind.

“What makes it really unfortunate is that we’re trying to shore up disparities in service, but are we inadvertently exacerbating these disparities to the disadvantage of more rural or economically challenged states that have less capacity in their offices?” said Piros de Carvalho. “I think it may be an unintended consequence of these deadlines and requirements.”

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

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, transmitted, rewritten or redistributed.

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