WASHINGTON, January 6, 2023 — As the deadline to challenge the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map approaches, many state offices are struggling with the process — whether due to limited resources, contractual restrictions or both. Engaging local organizations and communities in the planning process can help states successfully utilize grant funding, said panelists at a webinar hosted Thursday by rural broadband trade association NTCA.
The central problem with the FCC’s mapping process is not the process itself, but rather the way that the project’s timeline has been compressed, said Michael Romano, executive vice president of the NTCA. Not only did the FCC get off to a slow start because of difficulties finding a contractor, the decision to use the map to allocate billions of dollars in grant funding is rushing the map’s completion.
“There is, I think, a good blueprint for the plane to be built — but it’s being built while it’s being flown,” Romano said.
Stakeholders who are attempting to challenge the fabric’s data are hindered by the fact that the fabric is not yet finalized, and providers may have yet to capture certain locations. This may also compromise the allocation of funds from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program.
“When the FCC map came out, it showed Texas at being over 98 percent served, which was news to us… we know there’s a lot of unserved and underserved areas out there that the map does not show correctly,” said Jennifer Prather, CEO of Texas-based telecommunications company Totelcom. “However, this week when we looked at the state map, it actually looks like it might be worse.”
Texas began to work on a state broadband map largely in order to challenge the FCC’s map, Prather said. But Texas’ map is using a different vendor than the one used by the FCC, which has caused some challenges.
The Texas Broadband Development Office contracted with LightBox, while the FCC’s national map was created by CostQuest. If Texas uses LightBox data to challenge the FCC’s map, that data can be used by CostQuest in its commercial products — which would violate Texas’ agreement with LightBox.
Although the challenge process is designed to increase the map’s accuracy, it may actually exacerbate discrepancies if some states energetically participate in the process and others are unable to do so, Romano said.
Collaboration with local community organizations is key
A challenge for many state broadband offices is a lack of experienced staff. For example, Texas’ state broadband office was created in 2021 and still only has three full time employees — who will soon be tasked with distributing billions of dollars. As a result, other private and local entities are playing an important role in the process.
“It has been really important for us to reach out early, early on to the communities around us that we want to serve,” Prather said. “Again, that is really something that a community-based provider — such as we are — has that no one else can touch, because we are trusted.”
Nationally led planning can turn into “building networks for networks’ sake” instead of considering effective and ongoing use cases, Romano said.
By contrast, tailoring network construction to the needs of specific areas can help ensure the network’s success, whether that entails “trying to keep birdshot out of it during hunting season or farm equipment from ripping it down,” Prather said.
Community input has been particularly important in the determination of anchor institutions. The BEAD program expands the traditional definition of anchor institution and allows state broadband offices to propose additional types of institutions for inclusion.
For example, after experiencing widespread electricity failures in 2021, some Texas communities may want to strengthen connections to solar farms or battery banks, Prather said. “While it might not be a traditional anchor institution, we’re taking that back to the state broadband office… We’re trying to get these things included.”
Local organizations will be key to making the most of BEAD funding, said Scott D. Woods, vice president of community engagement and strategic partnerships at Ready.
“We have enough independent organizations that are in it for the right reasons — they want to actively end the digital divide, want to make sure this money flows into unserved and underserved communities that have been traditionally digitally redlined,” Woods said.
Focus should be on fiber, to the greatest extent possible
BEAD funding will not be enough to provide 100 percent of customers with a fiber connection, but the focus should be on getting fiber to as many people as possible before considering alternate technologies, Prather said.
Romano agreed, pointing out that past efforts to close the digital divide have failed because of an unwillingness to use fiber unless it can be a universal solution.
“What we’ve seen in too many broadband programs in the past is this thinking of, ‘Well, I won’t connect anyone until I can connect everyone, and therefore I’m not going to try to use the best possible technology.’”
One important advantage of fiber is its sustainability over time.
Even if the initial deployment cost is higher, fiber often comes out ahead once long-term upgrade and maintenance costs are taken into consideration, Prather said.
Romano noted that while some BEAD-funded networks will be self-sustaining, many others will require ongoing support after the grant funding is exhausted.
“It’s not just about getting people connected,” he said. “It’s about keeping them connected and keeping the services affordable and upgraded over time.”
The future-proof nature of fiber is also important, particularly as connectivity needs continue to grow.
The current definition of an “underserved” location is one that lacks access to reliable broadband service with a speed of at least 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload. However, this standard is still far too low to meet many consumers’ needs, panelists said.
Targeting 100 Mbps download * 20 Mbps upload can sometimes “get you laughed out of an office, because that’s just not the reality of what we’re seeing today,” Prather said. This problem will only be exacerbated in the future, given the quick pace at which speed needs are growing with the much slower pace of broadband funding.