The FCC’s plan to fix broadband mapping is progressing slowly. I think by now that everybody in the industry understands how lousy the FCC maps have been. Through a combination of dumb mapping rules and ISPs overreporting broadband speeds, the current maps sometimes completely miss the mark.
Congress got involved and passed legislation to require the FCC to fix the maps. In March 2020, Congress passed S.1822, the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technology Availability (DATA) Act. That bill requires the FCC to gather granular service data for wired, fixed wireless, and satellite broadband providers. It requires the FCC to consider using state broadband mapping data where states have tried to create a better picture of broadband. It also requires a crowdsourcing process to allow the public to participate in data collection. The Act provides for penalties against ISPs that knowingly or recklessly submit inaccurate mapping data. Finally, the Act requires the FCC to use better maps when making awards for broadband funding.
But as often happens in the government, this bill didn’t provide any funding to make the needed changes. The FCC started the process of formulating new rules after the passage of the Act, but didn’t take any action to fix the maps due to lack of funding.
Congress finally provided $98 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in December 2020 that included $65 million to create better maps. During that same month, the FCC completed the $7 billion RDOF reverse auction that was still based upon the lousy mapping – seemingly in violation of the Act.
In February of this year, the FCC under acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel established the Broadband Data Task Force with the aim of implementing the goals of the DATA Act and fixing the mapping. The FCC kicked off the new Broadband Data Collection (BDC) program in March 2021 to change the way that mapping data is collected from ISPs. The federal procurement process is slow, and the FCC finally released the RFP to hire a vendor to fix the mapping and eventually awarded a $45 million contract to CostQuest Associates.
In November, LightBox challenged that RFP award. According to federal procurement rules, it will take at least one hundred days for the FCC to deal with that challenge.
Meanwhile, it is raining federal broadband grant monies. There was a huge amount of potential grant funding in the ARPA legislation that gave some grant monies to federal agencies like the NTIA and the RUS. But that legislation gave far more money directly to cities, counties, and states – much of it directed at broadband. In November, Congress added another $42.5 billion in grants to the pile of federal money that is on the way.
All of these grants include some sort of speed test threshold to define what is eligible for grant funding. That’s going to require relying on the FCC maps. People all over the country are already making plans for applying for the BEAD grants, and they will be hindered all next year while waiting on the maps.
The FCC was recently asked by Congress for a status of the mapping update and the FCC has no estimated timeline for the introduction of revised mapping. I’ve talked to several knowledgeable folks who are estimating that it will be at least early 2023 before we get a gander at revised mapping. I think everybody expects the first version of the new maps to be a mess as ISPs try to interpret how to report in the new mapping system. In fact, that was one of the purposes for having a challenge process. It’s hard to think that it won’t be well into 2023 before the maps are scrubbed to the point of making sense.
And after all of that, I still hold out little hope for the new maps. ISPs are still going to be reporting theoretical marketing speeds instead of actual speeds. Further, as I wrote in a recent blog, there is no way to map actual speeds – it’s a futile quest. I personally don’t think it’s possible to create an accurate broadband map when two neighbors can experience different broadband speeds from the same ISP. But hopefully, we can at least improve the mapping to the point where the maps don’t stop neighborhoods from getting broadband upgrades.