Hopefully by now, most communities with poor broadband will have heard about the gigantic federal grants on the way to provide broadband solutions. The largest is the $42.5 BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment) grants that will be administered by states, with the funding and the rules established by the NTIA.
There is one provision in the enabling legislation that established these grants that makes me nervous and should concern everybody. The federal grants give priority to locations that are unserved (broadband speeds under 25/3 Mbps) and can also be used to fund underserved locations (speeds between 25/3 and 100./20 Mbps). The troubling provision is that Section 60102 of the legislation makes it clear the determination of eligible locations will rely upon the FCC maps.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, the agency that oversees the NTIA and the grant program, acknowledges that this is a problem. In an interview with CNBC, the Secretary admitted that grants might not be awarded until sometime in 2023 after the FCC maps have been updated.
I think it’s a huge problem if we need corrected FCC maps before we can decide which parts of the country are eligible for these grants. I fully expect the first version of the new FCC maps to be a disaster. ISPs will struggle with changing from reporting simple tallies by Census block to drawing complicated polygons around customers who are served or who can be served within ten days after a request. There will be a lot of honest mistakes made in the first few iterations of the new mapping as ISPs adapt to the new reporting methodology. It might take a few rounds of reporting until ISPs get the new maps right.
But the real problem will come from the big telcos who distort the current broadband maps by over-reporting broadband speed capabilities. Several of the big telcos have notoriously been reporting speeds of 25/3 Mbps or greater to shield monopoly areas from grants. ISPs today are largely free to claim any speeds they want. The current FCC rules say that ISPs can report marketing speeds – something the ISP can determine. There are huge parts of the country where speeds of 25/3 Mbps are claimed in the FCC maps when actual speeds might be a few Mbps.
The new FCC maps will not stop this practice. The big telcos can still claim fast speeds that don’t exist. In fact, if it stops the award of the BEAD grants, the telcos are likely to report even more areas as having 25/3 Mbps capability. Recall that just before the RDOF reverse auction, Frontier and CenturyLink tried to change tens of thousands of Census blocks to speeds of 25/3 Mbps, which would have kept them out of the RDOF auction. The FCC rejected most of these claims, but the attempt demonstrates the blatant deceptions that the big ISPs are willing to take to keep customers and revenues.
There is currently no penalty at the FCC for overreporting speeds, and some of the big telcos have found this to be a convenient tool to use to maintain monopoly service areas. The BEAD grant might be the last big grant program for a long time, so I can’t see any motivation for the big telcos will suddenly become honest and create honest maps.
We’ve seen in the challenges to the current NTIA grants that the big telcos have no shame. The telcos have been challenging grant eligibility in huge numbers of Census blocks where they know that speeds are poor – these grant challenges are all about keeping out competition.
If there is any glimmer of hope, it’s that the BEAD grant funds will funnel through the states. Many of the states that already have grant programs have become tired of the games played by telcos and don’t pay them much heed. There are some states that have created their own broadband maps that they believe to be more accurate than the current FCC maps. We’ll have to see how much leeway the NTIA will allow for states to use the better mapping data. Unfortunately, the grant language in the BEAD legislation is fairly clear that the mapping that matters for this map is the FCC mapping. The grant legislation says that broadband data maps are the maps created under section 802(c)(1) of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 642(c)(1)).
It’s already a shame that the mapping issue is immediately going to delay the BEAD grants from being awarded this year when millions of homes are waiting for better broadband. This mapping issue will easily add six months to a year until grants are awarded – and that means a longer time until there is a broadband solution deployed. The worse travesty will come if parts of the country continue to be denied grant funding due to dishonest maps. I think we’re only going to have one chance to get this right – and I’m not optimistic about this first basic step of defining who is eligible for the grants. I hope somebody proves me wrong.