States, communities struggle to meet deadline in broadband funding process
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The Infrastructure bill passed in 2021 provided for a once-in-a-century investment in broadband expansion. The funding intends to help bridge the digital divide — a persistent problem especially in rural areas.
To figure out where the money should go, the Federal Communications Commission made new maps of current broadband access. But those maps are seen as flawed by many and the timeline to correct them was short.
Now many communities worry they will be left out.
Last month Kimball Sekaquaptewa testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing on internet access. She’s a member of the Hopi tribe who lives in Pueblo de Cochiti — 45 minutes south of Santa Fe —and said new FCC broadband maps are flawed — especially for tribal lands.
“In my rural community, the map currently shows three residences when it should show 275,” she said.
The map has other gaps too; the state of New York reported at least 31,000 state residences were missing.
These maps will be used to divvy up $42.5 billion to expand broadband access where it’s needed most.
Internet access advocates complained for years that the old broadband maps were incomplete.
The new maps are an improvement but problems still drew the attention of two dozen senators who asked the FCC for more accuracy.
And any challenges to the maps have to be submitted by this week. Communities have been scrambling to meet the deadline within a two month window that included three holidays and one of the biggest winter storms on record.
“And it’s just such a — it’s so detached from the reality that people live,” said Dustin Loup, program manager for the National Broadband Mapping Coalition.
In New Mexico, the rugged, mountainous terrain makes broadband expansion expensive — and out of reach for many areas.
Kelly Schlegel runs the state office responsible for challenging the map and she says there’s a lot on the line if communities are not represented correctly.
“It could possibly leave hundreds of millions of dollars on the table instead of flowing to New Mexico. Which really keeps me up at night,” she said.
A number of local governments and at least nineteen states have asked for more time, but the federal government hasn’t paused the process.
A spokesperson for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration said that in order the get funding out in June the agency must adhere to the deadline — but communities can still file challenges after that point and they may be included.
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