The FCC just announced that ISPs must file new mapping data with the FCC by September 1. The portal for accepting the new mapping data will open on June 30. The FCC cautioned that it could accelerate the final due date before September 1.
The FCC is under tremendous pressure to implement the new mapping data because the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act legislation is basing the $42.5 billion BEAD grant program on the FCC maps. The FCC may move the date sooner depending upon the resolution of a challenge by LightBox to the award of the mapping software creation to CostQuest. If that gets resolved sooner, the FCC is likely to require that new mapping information be filed sooner.
The new mapping data will be submitted in the form of shapefiles that are supposed to precisely define where ISPs have active customers today or are capable of implementing a request for new service within ten working days. Every ISP in the country is supposed to create and submit these maps by the FCC’s due dates.
I’m highly skeptical that the first round of the new maps will be correct. It’s not easy to get these maps right in rural America, where the maps should reflect the ability to serve a given house, but not the neighbor. I think the first set of reporting under the new maps will include tons of errors just from the inability of ISPs to get coverage areas to fit the new rules. ISPs will get better at this – but expect some big problems the first time that ISPs try this.
The new maps, if done right, will require cable companies to identify the last house served on their networks on every street and road leaving every town that is served by a cable company. I’m guessing that’s a whole lot of work if the cable companies didn’t create detailed electronic maps of service areas over the years. I must give the FCC credit on this one issue because there are homes just past the edge of every cable company that the current FCC mapping shows as being served, but which aren’t. I won’t be surprised if cleaning up the reporting at the edges of cable companies won’t show a half-million homes that can’t buy fast broadband.
The group with the biggest challenge is WISPs. If this is done right, a WISP must basically show a map of the coverage area from each antenna that reflects areas that can’t be served due to obstructions like hills. I have no idea how a WISP will determine who can be served in ten days in places with trees and foliage. The process most WISPs undertake with a prospective new customer is to visit and see if the customer can get a signal – they often don’t really know until they try. The old maps required WISPs to guess if they could reach a Census block – now they are expected to map exact coverage areas.
A bigger question is if ISPs want to tell the truth about coverage. For example, I know of a Western WISP that claims 100% coverage of two adjoining counties when the WISP operates from a single radio on top of a mountain. The area claimed as coverage by this WISP is 90% fiction, and I have to wonder if this WISP or the many other ISPs that exaggerate broadband coverage, are going to come clean just because the FCC implements a new reporting system? Is the FCC really going to climb into the weeds to understand the local details of the coverage areas for rural ISPs? The FCC has the power to impose fines and penalties for ISPs that file incorrect coverage data – but it has only exercised this authority a few times.
To me, the biggest concern of the new mapping is the FCC’s intentions on how to use the mapping data. It’s clear that the revised FCC maps are supposed to identify households that can’t buy broadband at speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps or of 100/20 Mbps. It’s possible that the FCC can fix the problem of exaggerated coverage areas, but this likely will take years to sort out. But the FCC has already set itself to fail for its primary objective by still allowing ISPs to exaggerate broadband speeds. ISPs are still allowed to report marketing speeds, meaning they can largely make up any broadband speed story they want to tell.
Rural communities are going to rightfully be irate when the much-awaited new maps don’t change the blatantly exaggerated broadband speeds. The first draft of the new maps will still include exaggerated coverage areas, and it might take years of concentrated effort by the FCC to clean up coverage reporting. But I can’t see any way that the new maps will fix the speed story.
The FCC has created a false expectation that the first round of new maps will clean up all of the reporting sins of the past. They’ve been promising Congress that the new maps will be better – and they might be. To us in the industry, marginally better maps would be a great first step. But that’s not what the FCC says is coming. I predict a firestorm when everybody realizes that many of the old mapping problems have been translated into the new maps.