The Federal Communications Commission is set to release the first round of its updated national broadband map this week. It’s supposed to show more precise and detailed information on internet availability all over the country.
Advocates have complained for years that the old maps were full of inaccurate data, and getting those numbers right is a big deal because this new map will determine how the government spends the $42.5 billion in the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, or BEAD.
Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke with Dustin Loup, program manager for the National Broadband Mapping Coalition, a digital advocacy group, about how the new map was developed, how the FCC will try to keep it updated and potential problems facing this updated version. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Dustin Loup: The FCC has contracted with a company called CostQuest to develop a broadband serviceable locations fabric, which attempts to identify every location within the U.S. in which retail internet service could be provided without making a determination on whether or not there is access to service. On top of this fabric, the [internet service providers] will report maximum advertised speed of the service that they offer to each location.
Kimberly Adams: How is the FCC planning to ensure that the data are accurate?
Loup: The FCC was required to set up a challenge process that allows governmental entities, individuals and other groups to use their own data, often local data, to challenge the accuracy of these maps. There is the fabric challenge process, which challenges the accuracy of that base layer of the map. The other type of challenge process is the availability challenge process to both the mobile availability that’s reported by mobile providers and the fixed availability challenge that’s reported by residential internet service providers.
Adams: What are the limitations of this new process?
Loup: The challenge process is really restricted to two types of data. One is knowledge of the infrastructure, and the other is data collected by consumers from interactions with their internet service providers. This creates some issues and restricts some key datasets that many communities have been collecting for years in the form of internet speed tests that are one of the most effective mechanisms to crowdsource data on the availability and quality of service. We’re placing more faith in these nationally gathered datasets than the ground-truth data that those individuals know to be true on the ground.
Adams: Granted, this is just an initial update to these maps, but what’s effectively at stake in getting this right?
Loup: These broadband maps will be initially used to determine the amount of funding that each state is allocated through the BEAD program based on the proportion of unserved locations within that state against the entire number of unserved locations across the country. So there’s a lot at stake here. And the limitations of the challenge process may really present challenges for those communities that have been prevented from accessing funding for years, who may continue to face these challenges moving forward.
Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams
Once this map is released on Friday, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will say just how those $42.5 billion will be distributed by summer of next year.
As Loup said, the challenge process is an ongoing one, but he’s worried the window that’s the “best opportunity” for those challenges to translate into meaningful changes is relatively short — from Nov. 18 to Jan. 13.
Loup said he’s worried that short window puts a lot of burden on communities who want to make sure they’re not left out.
There have already been multiple challenges to that base layer “fabric data” ongoing since September. New York’s state government recently brought its own challenge, arguing that it found 31,000 locations missing from the fabric data.
CostQuest, the company that’s been aggregating this data, said that was less than 1% of New York State’s total location count.
Still, this all goes to show how important it is that the FCC gets this right as quickly as possible.
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