Concerns are rising among smaller broadband providers that they won’t be able to meet the FCC’s September 1 deadline to submit their coverage data in order to be eligible for participation in the upcoming Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment program.
Impact: The first hint that anything was amiss with the FCC’s broadband mapping schedule came from NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association CEO Shirley Bloomfield, who said the industry group is very concerned that its members might miss out on the $42.5 billion BEAD program because of problems getting their data input into the “The Fabric” set up by the FCC to overlay data onto its new broadband coverage map. Congress mandated the new map in 2020 to replace the existing federal broadband map, which is considered extremely inaccurate due to the way in which the data that populates it is collected.
According to Bloomfield, policymakers are pressing broadband providers to get their data in as quickly as possible, but smaller providers generally have fewer resources to dedicate to the time-consuming task. Not only that, providers are finding the data already in the fabric to be so wrong that they don’t know how to fix it. And when they do try to put their own data in, the system continually crashes on them, something that will likely worsen as more companies log on to the system in the days leading up to the deadline.
The FCC’s broadband data collection portal came online June 30, giving the country’s approximately 2,500 broadband providers roughly two months to get their data submitted so that the commission can submit a first draft of its new map to state agencies, which will then be able to challenge the data with its own data. The data’s accuracy is paramount to the success of the BEAD program, which will use the FCC’s new maps to determine how much money each state will receive beyond the $100 million allocated to each. Additional funding will be based on how much of its population lives in unserved and underserved areas lacking affordable high-speed broadband options.
Now Conexon, which helps electric cooperatives build out fiber networks, has echoed concerns about the government’s mapping strategy, with executive Jonathan Chambers urging the FCC to fix the problems before it’s too late. Chamber believes the plan to allocate broadband funding based on maps that won’t be 100% accurate is fundamentally flawed and that the use of census data from rural households would be more accurate. Chambers has also taken issue with the challenge process planned by the FCC and scheduled to start in November. With state, local, and tribal governments, as well as consumers, able to weigh in on the map’s accuracy with protests accepted on a rolling basis, the whole process is likely to get bogged down, making it difficult to calculate the amount of money that should go to each entity.
Although the concerns Chambers raised are slightly different than those coming from the smaller broadband providers, the issues all intersect in the same place: the fact that the FCC is required by law to use its new broadband maps to determine the amount of BEAD funding allocated to each state, proportionate to the number of unserved and underserved locations in each. If the issues raised by these two separate entities, which represent different membership bases, are correct, there likely will be countless delays in funding as the government tries to unravel what went wrong and figure out how to get funding directed to the correct locations.
This could further delay the availability of accessible high-speed broadband for customers the government is trying to help and who desperately need access to better service. Whether government officials will heed these warnings in time is TBD, but the picture being painted right now isn’t pretty and could turn the Biden Administration’s goal of universal broadband service into a policy quagmire.