Federal Miscount Could Cause Millions to Miss Out on Free Apartment Wi-Fi

WASHINGTON, May 16, 2024 – A federal miscount could prevent millions from gaining access to free apartment Wi-Fi as part of a new White House initiative, warns EducationSuperHighway.

The nonprofit’s research has uncovered 75,378 additional multi-dwelling units eligible for priority installation of free Wi-Fi networks under a current federal initiative, compared to the 9,417 MDUs listed on the national broadband map.

Adeyinka Ogunlegan, ESH’s vice president of government affairs and policy, said that this discrepancy could hinder millions living in affordable housing from gaining internet access. “We want to be sure that MDUs get their fair share of the funding,” Ogunlegan said in conversation with Broadband Breakfast.

ESH reports that between 20 to 25 percent of U.S. households without access to the internet reside in affordable multi-dwelling units, or MDUs. 

The nonprofit estimates around 6 million people in 3.7 million households could get online in a quick and cost-effective way by dedicating less than 18 percent of a current $42.5 billion federal allotment for broadband expansion grants to connect these MDUs.

The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act stipulates that the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity Access and Deployment “BEAD” program must prioritize the installation of Free Apartment Wi-Fi networks in substantially underserved affordable multifamily housing. 

However, the national broadband map maintained by the Federal Communications Commission, which determines location-based eligibility for BEAD, overstates the availability of broadband across the country. The problem is so well-documented that Congress recently mandated that the commission accept broadband availability challenges to the map and update it every 6 months.

A leading advocate in the space, EducationSuperHighway has already filed more than 7,500 challenges across 15 states through the BEAD mapping challenge process to contest the federal map’s inaccuracies.

The BEAD challenge process

In preparation for BEAD, states must engage in a “challenge process” during which nonprofits, local governments, and internet service providers can contest the accuracy of ISPs’ service availability claims on the FCC’s map.

In engaging with Delaware’s challenge process, ESH uncovered a 40 percent inconsistency between ISPs’ self-reported availability claims and the actual internet service accessible to residents of MDUs.

The nonprofit identified 200 MDUs in Delaware that align with the BEAD program’s priority criteria for areas of high-poverty or low-connectivity.

Upon attempting to subscribe to the internet services as claimed on the FCC map, the nonprofit found that 172 of the 431 service claims were false. Yet, only one of the 200 MDUs was marked as ‘unserved’ on the FCC map. 

ESH expects to submit a significant number of challenges in major states like Texas, California, and Florida, where the mapping challenge processes have yet to begin.

“We’re still waiting to see the success of our challenges because every state has a different portal,” Ogunlegan said. “We’re doing that backend work now to see which challenges we submitted were successful. We will know when states are finished with the rebuttal and the final adjudication process how well we did.”

New NTIA program guidance

As part of its initiative for more accurate broadband mapping, EducationSuperHighway successfully advocated for the burden of ground-truthing broadband availability claims at MDUs to be shifted to ISPs.

After ESH engaged with the agency overseeing BEAD, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, NTIA announced the inclusion of a new modification states could adopt in their BEAD plans before entering the challenge process.

The area and MDU challenge modification, included in the BEAD model challenge process last May, shifts the burden for proving broadband service availability claims from local stakeholders and nonprofits to the ISP making the claim. 

During the rebuttal phase of the challenge process, an ISP can rebut the reclassification of MDU locations but must provide sufficient unit-level evidence–including availability, speed, latency, data caps, and technology.

The modification has proven to be popular with 41 states choosing to adopt it in their initial BEAD plans submitted to the NTIA, according to internal research. 

ESH has since been working with NTIA to refine the ‘area and MDU’ modification to make it less burdensome for nonprofits and local stakeholders to correct mapping data. 

Originally, NTIA’s guidelines required challengers to contest service availability claims for 10 percent of the units in a building. This placed a considerable burden on challengers. For instance, contesting a claim for a 100-unit building required submitting separate challenges for 10 units. This would take even the most experienced ESH worker more than an hour to contest one provider’s false service claim at one MDU. 

Under new guidance, only three units must be challenged in MDUs with 25 or more units to qualify the entire building for BEAD consideration. In smaller buildings, challenging just one or two units suffices.

“NTIA recognized the work we plan to do in the space and how difficult it might be,” Ogunlegan told Broadband Breakfast. “So they adjusted the language so smaller buildings don’t require as many units to show that they are underserved.”

EducationSuperHighway is also assisting states by providing address-level data for MDUs that are highly likely to be unserved or underserved. This data is crucial for states to include in their initial BEAD proposals, ensuring these MDUs are part of the government’s Free Apartment Wi-Fi initiative.

This effort was spurred in conjunction with additional NTIA guidance encouraging states to investigate the connectivity status of MDUs beyond those listed as unserved on the FCC’s national map.  

Originally, BEAD guidelines mandated states to connect the 9,417 MDUs identified as unserved and underserved on the national broadband map, but did not require states to veer from the federal map, ESH reports.


To create these lists, ESH employed a team of contractors to identify and assess the accuracy of claimed service at specific, high-need MDUs across the country, focusing on MDUs with 50 units or more.

For each MDU, they turned to the FCC map to identify services ISPs claimed to offer. The contractor would then attempt to order that internet service, just as a resident would if they lived in that apartment building.

If the contractor was successful in ordering service from any provider, the location was marked as “served.” If not, it was flagged as “unserved” or “underserved” for a member of ESH to submit a challenge to that broadband serviceable location when the state’s challenge portal opens.

The contractor would then return to the FCC map to see what other ISPs claimed to offer service at that particular MDU, and they would try to order service from the next provider. They repeated this process until they ran out of providers claiming to serve the building. This method was repeated across each state nationwide.

Throughout the process, Ogunlegan said she noticed a shift in the responses contractors began to receive from ISPs:

“I noticed that ISPs have changed the response we get when we are trying to confirm the services available at a particular address. Now we are seeing some providers where that language doesn’t say whether services are ‘available’ or ‘not available.’ Instead, it says ‘further assistance is required to determine if services are available at your location’ so they’re not making it not as clear cut for us.”

“It is interesting and also challenging because now we have to do additional work to verify the service availability claims. But, in my mind, and I think most folks would agree with me, if I can’t order service without having to call someone, then there’s probably issues with the service availability at that location.”

Why is the FCC’s count of MDUs so inaccurate?

Through the process, the nonprofit has uncovered several reasons why an ISP may falsely claim to serve an MDU on the federal map. Some include:

Lack of inside wiring: ISPs may have fiber-to-the-curb or building capabilities but lack the necessary inside wiring infrastructure to connect units, or the inside wiring infrastructure is in a state of disrepair. This is common as much of the affordable housing stock predates broadband, with 51 of public housing units built before 1975.

User limitation: Technologies like cellular, licensed fixed wireless cap the total number of users per tower on their network. For example, all 100 household units in an MDU could not simultaneously use service once that customer cap is met because they are all using the same tower.

Lack of service:The ISP is able to deliver fiber-to-the-building within ten days but only offers business internet services and does not actually provide residential service.

FCC National Broadband Map: The national map may inaccurately depict a multi-tenant building as being entirely served when only the building manager’s office or commercial space is served, despite there being a substantial share of unserved households. 

One MDU = One BSL

A significant challenge in addressing MDU connectivity is the classification of MDUs on the national broadband map, where an entire apartment complex is considered a single broadband-serviceable location, or BSL. 

EducationSuperHighway urged the NTIA last May to revise how MDUs are represented on the national broadband map, saying without accurate unit-by-unit data, the maps undercount the number of unconnected households living in affordable MDUs, negatively impacting the BEAD funding states need to connect these households.

“When NTIA released their guidance, almost a year ago, around the challenge process we engaged with them about correcting how MDUs are classified on the national map as one BSL, when you’re potentially talking about dozens of households that live at that BSL and not accounting for their lack of internet access,” Ogunlegan said. “But, based on the way the statute was written the agency’s hands were tied.”

What is managed Wi-Fi?

Improvements in Wi-Fi technology have made it possible to connect units in MDUs to reliable broadband service by deploying Wi-Fi access points throughout the property and then connecting the building network to a fiber connection. Modeled after how Wi-Fi is delivered in most hotels today, ESH reports.

Rather than buy a separate internet connection for each room, the hotel buys a single internet connection for the building and then installs a building-wide Wi-Fi network. The hotel then makes it easy for guests to use the Wi-Fi by giving them the network name and password when they check in. There are no complicated forms to fill out, and the demand from guests has now made Wi-Fi a standard, free amenity in virtually every hotel, ESH reports.

States have already started deploying Free Apartment Wi-Fi using the Treasury Department’s Capital Projects Fund. Several states, including Nevada, New York, Maryland, and Massachusetts, are using CPF funds to install Free Apartment Wi-Fi networks in MDUs.