Ensuring Accurate Broadband Maps: Time to Get All Hands on Deck

January 10, 2023

by Kate Forscey, Contributing Fellow at The Digital Progress Institute and Principal of KRF Strategies

Over the holiday, I spent some time in Appalachia with family friends.  Getting online and staying long enough to do something worthwhile was quite a time. The broadband connection was not always reliable (spotty might be a better word), making digital life difficult for this visitor and much harder for their kids, coders and gamers both.  Nonetheless, according to the National Broadband Map, they’re “connected”—because their neighbors across the street have gigabit service.

The problems with the national map, overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), are well known, well documented, and well on their way to being fixed.  Back in 2020, for example, Congress provided the agency with $90 million to create new, more accurate maps.  And just this November, the FCC released new, more granular maps showing which particular houses and businesses could actually subscribe to high-speed broadband and which could not.

But there’s a reason FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has called even those new maps a “pre-production draft.”  That’s because the maps are still less than stellar.  A bipartisan group of 12 Senators, for example, have pointed out that 60% of businesses and homes on Tribal lands in Washington State are missing from the maps, meanwhile a “tremendous” number of office buildings are missing from high-growth areas in Mississippi.  At a congressional hearing, Senator Ben Ray Lujan explained that New Mexico is missing 37,000 locations, and Senator Shelley Moore Capito argued that the maps contained errors for 138,000 locations in West Virginia.

Why are the FCC’s new maps drawing such ire from members of Congress?  As with many things in DC, it comes back to money—in this case, $42.5 billion of it.

You see, the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act gave $42.5 billion to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to distribute among the several states to close the digital divide.  How much funding each state gets is tied to how many places in that state don’t have access to high-speed broadband.  So a mistake in the maps could cost a state tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in funding—and leave Americans who’ve awaited affordable broadband for years out in the cold.

Bringing this to a head this week is an administrative deadline—states and tribes are supposed to submit any challenges to the maps by this Friday, January 13—and many states and Senators are asking the FCC and the NTIA to give them another 60 days to finish the job.

That’s a serious request, and one that the Commission and Chairwoman Rosenworcel will no doubt take seriously.  After all, if some states saying that they cannot file their challenges by January 13, that’s a big problem.  One can understand why that might be—gathering the data to challenge the maps is no small feat especially when faced with winter weather.  What is more, the agencies gave states only 56 days to file challenges in a period encompassing Thanksgiving, the holiday season, and New Year’s.  Given that the mapping project started in earnest more than two years ago, letting states and Tribes have less than two months’ time to file challenges seems a bit tight.  After all, there are tens of billions of dollars at stake—if a little more time can move the needle on accuracy, it’d likely be worthwhile.

NTIA may similarly want to grant some extension.  NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson, for example, said the time crunch on states is “uncomfortable,” and he has expressed a desire for states to be able to challenge the FCC’s new maps properly.

In other words, some extension—perhaps 30 or even 45 days—is warranted and is likely to come to pass.  A short extension would provide an opportunity for the agencies to help the states with their challenges and give states more time to get this over the finish line.

That said, the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.  More time will mean more accurate maps—as Chairwoman Rosenworcel has said, this is an “ongoing, iterative process where we are consistently adding new data to improve and refine the maps.”  Indeed, the FCC’s website will continue to give states and others the ability to submit a location challenge even after January 13.  But there are diminishing returns to additional delay, not the least of which is that broadband providers are already preparing to file new data to update the maps with their deployments over the last few months.  And the longer the agencies take in accepting challenges, the longer it will take to process all the challenges, deliver final maps, and start funding new broadband deployment.

So it’s for good reason that NTIA has set a deadline of June 30 for it to make its funding allocation decisions—there needs to be an end point to this process if we are going to connect the Americans that are on the wrong side of the digital divide.  Administrator Davidson was right to acknowledge that staying on target with funding is just as important as getting more accurate maps.

That gets us back to a strategy that Chairwoman Rosenworcel has endorsed before and should follow again: the walk-and-chew-gum-at-the-same-time strategy.  Yes, states will need more time to finish up their challenges.  But no doubt many states will file early, having prepared to file this week.  The FCC can start processing those challenges while it gives states that need more time some relief—and swift decisinomaking by leadership can ensure that administrative hiccups don’t gum up the works.

There’s also no reason NTIA can’t help—from now through June 30, it should be all hands on deck at both agencies to make sure all the challenges can be submitted and processed before that deadline. I’m heartened by the comments of our leaders at the FCC and NTIA, and I hope this means they will make moves to close the digital divide in a meaningful way.  American have already had to wait long enough to actually see true connectivity in their communities.  They certainly can’t afford to wait more—my little buddies in Appalachia need to be able to code their programs!