FCC Releases National Broadband Map Amid Controversy

WASHINGTON, November 18, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission released the initial version of its long-anticipated national broadband map, which currently shows broadband provider-reported availability data for locations nationwide that will be updated based on challenges submitted by the public.

The map displays address-level performance and provider data for fixed and mobile broadband as well as data aggregated to larger areas – e.g., state, county, census place, and congressional district. Data can be examined by navigating the map’s digital interface or by searching by state or address. The map also displays coverage data by provider.

To correct for inevitable errors, the FCC is soliciting challenges to the map’s provider-submitted data.

Based on the FCC’s mapping data, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will allot to the states grants from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, a $42.45 fund authorized by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021.

To ensure valid challenges are incorporated into the map before allocation decisions are made, the NTIA encouraged the public to submit challenges by January 13, 2023.

Once the states receive BEAD grants, they will run sub-grant programs that will designate funds for individual broadband-deployment and related projects. Many states already have their own broadband maps, which will likely factor heavily into the final disbursal of BEAD funds to projects. What’s more, they are not required to follow the FCC’s lead and can more heavily rely on speed-test data if they see fit.

The map is based on the “fabric,” a nationwide dataset of all locations at which fixed broadband is or could be installed. It created by the commission’s contractor, CostQuest Associates. The FCC began accepting challenges to the fabric’s data in September.

Challenges to the FCC’s fabric

Speaking on Thursday at Broadband Breakfast’s Digital Infrastructure Investment conference, CostQuest CEO James Stegeman acknowledged that state broadband offices may be hamstrung by commercial agreements they have with data vendors if they decide to challenge the agency’s data.

The dilemma comes when state broadband offices say that they could be in legal trouble challenging the FCC’s mapping data because third-party data vendor won’t allow its data to land in the hands of competitor CostQuest.

“It is a concern, but I’m not sure how you address that concern,” Stegeman said. “It is not necessarily the FCC’s issue – it’s really those third parties who present issues to the states.”

After New York announced in late October that it had submitted more than 31,500 missing locations, Fierce Telecom reported that CostQuest Vice President Mike Wilson said New York’s challenges cover a very small percentage – about 0.66 percent – of total locations in the state.

According to Wilson, New York’s challenges are “in line with what we would expect as a potential error rate” for the fabric’s first draft.

Wilson, industry experts, and the FCC itself have emphasized the importance of the challenge process’s iterative nature to creating a high-quality national broadband map.

But can states fully participate in the fabric-challenge process?

The effectiveness of the challenge process depends on the ability of states and other stakeholders to energetically participate in the challenge process, however. On a recent Broadband Breakfast Live Online panel, Adam Carpenter, chief data officer of the Montana Department of Administration, said that many states are contractually barred from doing so.

According to Carpenter, Montana leases proprietary mapping data – data needed to fully participate in the fabric-challenge process – from a state contractor. Licensing agreements, however, prevent the sharing of this data as a challenge to the FCC since, per contractual agreements, CostQuest may lease challenge data for use in its commercial mapping products.

“If you’re leasing that data from a private entity, you can’t just hand it over to another private entity,” Carpenter said. “And that’s put us in a position where we’re either not going to challenge the FCC map, we’re going to violate our contract and we get sued, or we’re going to work some deal where we partially challenge the FCC map where it favors us.”

Carpenter said many states share Montana’s predicament.

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