States are racing against a deadline to challenge the map federal officials will use to divvy up the nation’s largest-ever investment in high-speed internet.
At stake is a share of the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, part of the infrastructure measure President Joe Biden signed 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 the haves and have nots of internet access down to specific street addresses.
Critics have long suspected that the number of people with internet connections has been overstated by the government, in part because agencies creating the maps have deferred to telecommunications companies to say where service is provided.
The Cullman Electric Cooperative is requesting that its customers assist them in verifying the accuracy of the FCC broadband connectivity map.
“There are discussions with state broadband offices and consumer advocacy groups nationwide that the information listed on the FCC mapping site – especially in rural areas – is not nearly as accurate as it should be to be used to allocate funds,” said Bonnie Baty, Sprout Fiber Internet Marketing and Services manager in a statement sent out on Tuesday. “Reports are surfacing across the county that the map lists services that are simply not available at individual addresses.”
The FCC have provided an opportunity to submit any inaccuracies by submitting a Location Challenge form. Communications Manager Brian Lacy said that the Co-op would be able to collect this data on their own, but would involve several weeks worth of research to compile a comprehensive list of its entire customer base.
The co-op is requesting that its customers visit the map to check their individual addresses and submit any inaccuracies that they are able to find.
Extending service to remote areas with few customers can be expensive for internet providers, but using the surge of new federal funds to fill the gaps depends heavily on knowing where they are.
According to the first draft of this year’s FCC map, 2% of residential addresses in the U.S. have no broadband access at all and 11% are considered underserved. But those figures are likely to rise after the state challenges.
Previous FCC maps depicted broadband availability at the census block level. That meant that if an internet service provider reported that it offered broadband to one home within a census block, the whole census block would be considered served.
But Congress in 2020 tasked the FCC with creating a more precise broadband map. It hired a company called CostQuest, which tapped tax assessment and land use records, as well as census and geospatial data, to create the underlying layer of the map showing every address where broadband can be installed. Then, internet service providers reported what internet speeds they actually offer at each address.
Baty said that the importance of presenting the FCC with accurate data is crucial in bringing broadband services to Cullman County’s rural residents.
“These inaccuracies will translate into real money to serve the communities that need it most to be lost.” Baty said in the same statement. “After the challenge process is completed, the data in the final version of the map will be used to determine how much grant money Alabama will receive to improve internet service throughout the state. If the final FCC map contains inaccurate data, thousands of Alabamians – especially those in rural and outside city-limit areas – are likely to be left out. The more we can help citizens correct the data, the more Alabama will be guaranteed a future of quality connectivity.”
The Jan. 13 deadline was set so that the FCC can resolve challenges before the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announces states’ allotments in June 2023.
The states will in turn funnel the grant money to several entities, including internet service providers, local or tribal governments and electric co-ops, 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 upon several factors, including an analysis of unserved 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.
The FCC connectivity map can be found at broadbandmap.fcc.gov.
Patrick Camp can be reached at 256-734-2131 ext. 238