LOS ANGELES (AP) – 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 part of a $42.5 billion broadband equity, access and deployment plan that is part of an infrastructure measure signed by President Joe Biden last year.
States have until Jan. 13 to challenge the broadband speed map released by the Federal Communications Commission last month, which for the first time shows how far Internet access is down to specific street addresses.
Critics have long suspected that the government overestimated the number of people with Internet connections, in part because the agencies that create the maps have delayed telling telecommunications companies where service is available.
Expanding service to remote areas with few customers can be expensive for ISPs, but using surplus new federal funds to fill gaps depends heavily on knowing where they are.
West Virginia officials have already filed challenges for 138,000 foreclosed homes, businesses and other locations in the state that they believe are unaccounted for, and they are preparing for at least 40,000 more.
“We’re going to find out,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia. “There’s no excuse that West Virginia, every corner, every person, if they have electricity in their house, by God they can also get Internet in their house.”
According to the first draft of this year’s FCC map, 2% of residential addresses in the US have no broadband access at all, and 11% are considered underserved. But after state challenges, those numbers are likely to rise.
Previous FCC maps depicted broadband availability at the census block level. That meant that if an Internet service provider reported offering broadband to one home within a census block, the entire census tract would be considered served.
But Congress in 2020 directed the FCC to create a more accurate 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 a map that shows every address where broadband can be installed. Internet service providers then reported what speeds they actually offered at each address.
To counter perceived inconsistencies, the public can challenge the map; an option that was not available with the FCC’s census block-level maps.
“I like to call (the FCC’s new map) the census block penetration radar,” said Jim Stritzinger, director of the South Carolina Broadband Office, which reports that 33,000 statewide addresses are missing from the map.
Mississippi State Broadband Director Sally Doty said her office has found a “tremendous number” of addresses that have gone missing in high-growth areas of the state, including DeSoto and Madison counties and along the Gulf Coast. In late November, the state launched a website where residents can take speed tests and fill out inquiries about their internet service.
“If we get low speeds for an area that is reported as covered, that will allow us to further investigate that and determine the appropriate course of action,” Doty said, adding that he hopes to receive 100,000 unique responses through the site by the end of the program. the year.
Maine’s state broadband office sent engineers to about 2,500 addresses in populated areas where it predicted broadband technology was most likely to be misplaced. Over the course of two weeks, engineers found roughly 1,000 discrepancies between the FCC’s map and the information actually available in the state, said Megan Grabill, a data analyst working on the project. The state combines field analysis results 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 don’t have the resources to fully participate.
The Kansas State Broadband Office recently hired two new employees, bringing the total to just four. Instead of mass data collection, the state has focused its efforts on webinars and public outreach to teach residents how to challenge the map.
“We’re walking through them step by step,” said Jade Piros de Carvalho, director of Kansas Broadband.
Map challenges may include claims that locations are missing or that the internet service shown on the map is not actually available. Challenges can be implemented at the mass, state or local government level, or at the individual level, where residents confirm information only for their address.
The mapping system that West Virginia uses to fact-check, the FCC map was created to provide city-style addresses for the state’s large rural areas to help emergency responders respond to 911 calls and other emergencies.
“These maps have been a challenge for years, and it’s been well put for years,” Kelly Workman, director of the West Virginia Broadband Office, 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.”
A Jan. 13 deadline has been set for the FCC to address the challenges before the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announces state allocations in June 2023.
The states, in turn, will award the grant to several organizations, 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 cheaper service option. Government regulatory bodies 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 unserved areas, as shown on the FCC map.
Unserved locations are locations that do not have reliable service of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.
Officials in some states, including Texas and Vermont, have pushed for an extension of the deadline, but the FCC has given no indication that it will push back the January 13 deadline.
While acknowledging that the FCC’s new map is a significant improvement over past versions, Kansas Broadband Director Piros de Carvalho questioned whether the timeline for the challenge process will leave some states behind.
“What makes it really sad is that we’re trying to fix existing disparities in service, but are we inadvertently exacerbating those disparities to the detriment of the most rural or economically challenged states that have lower capacity in their offices?” Piros de Carvalho said: “I think that may be an unintended consequence of these deadlines and requirements.”
Associated Press reporter Leah Willingham in Charleston, West Virginia contributed to this story. Harjay is a staff member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.
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