As promised, the FCC released a new set of maps on May 30. These are supposed to be the maps that will be used to allocate the $42.5 billion in BEAD grant funding to states. Broadband analyst Mike Conlow quickly published a blog on Substack about the new mapping data that includes a summary of the new map in easy-to-understand tables. Mike’s summary shows that there are more than 114.5 million broadband passings in the country – locations that could be broadband subscribers). That’s an increase of over 1 million locations since the last version of the FCC maps.
More importantly, the new maps can be used to count the number of households that can buy broadband at various speeds. The $42.5 billion in BEAD grant funding will be allocated to states according to the number of unserved locations – places that can’t buy broadband at a speed of at least 25/3 Mbps. Locations are underserved if there is an ISP that offers broadband between 25/3 Mbps and 100/20 Mbps. According to Mike’s quick math, there are 8.67 million unserved locations and 3.55 million underserved locations. Mike subsequently corrected the number of unserved locations to 8.3 million.
Anybody who is intimately familiar with the FCC maps knows that there is a lot of fiction buried in the reporting. There is one huge flaw in the FCC mapping system that has carried over from the previous FCC mapping regime – ISPs self-report the speeds they can deliver. Per the FCC mapping rules, ISPs can claim broadband marketing speeds rather than some approximation of actual speeds. In every county where I’ve delved deep into the local situation, I’ve found multiple ISPs that are overclaiming broadband speeds.
ISPs vary widely in how they report broadband speeds to the FCC. I see some ISPs who meticulously categorize customers into a dozen or more speed tiers. It’s fairly obvious that these ISPs are trying to accurately show the speeds that are available. But there are also ISPs that claim the same speed over a large geographic area. In today’s world, I’m always instantly suspicious of any ISP that claims exactly 100/20 Mbps broadband since that conveniently classifies those locations as served. An ISP making that claim is telling the FCC that everybody in their service footprint already has adequate broadband and that there is no need to give grant money to anybody to compete with them.
But such a claim is ludicrous if the ISP is deploying a technology like DSL, cellular wireless, or fixed wireless where it is impossible that every customer over a wide geographic area to get the ISP’s top claimed speed. Such claims are easy to debunk when you look closely. For example, customers only a few miles from a DSLAM or a tower can’t get the fastest speeds. There are multiple reasons why a given customer’s speed might be slower. Such claims are even more quickly debunked when looking at detailed Ookla speed tests.
A second flaw in the FCC maps is the coverage areas claimed by ISPs. The FCC is counting on public broadband challenges or challenges by State Broadband Offices to somehow fix this problem – but that’s an unrealistic hope. Most people don’t know about the FCC maps and the challenge process – and even people who know about it are not motivated to file a challenge about an ISP that claims service at their home that’s not really available. This issue can apply to any technology, but it’s particularly a problem for WISPs and cellular broadband. It’s not easy for a knowledgeable engineer to accurately judge the coverage area of a wireless network from a given tower – I have to think it’s beyond the capability of the folks at a State Broadband Office to understand it enough to challenge coverage. But it doesn’t take any expertise to know that a WISP or a cellular company claiming ubiquitous 100/20 Mbps coverage across large areas is exaggerating both speed and coverage capabilities.
It’s going to be interesting to see how States react to these final counts. There have been rumors about states ready to sue the FCC and the NTIA if they feel these maps will cheat them out of funding. There has been legislation introduced in the Senate that would force the NTIA to wait longer for better maps before allocating most of the funding. It’s going to be surprising if nobody pops up to challenge the allocation of the $42.5 million dollars. A challenge could pluge the BEAD grants into huge uncertainty.
An even bigger issue is if the FCC maps will be used to determine the locations that are grant eligible – because that would be a travesty. That would mean that every ISP that claims a bogus 100/20 Mbps broadband coverage will be rewarded by keeping out competition from grant funding. Regardless of how the funding is allocated to States, Broadband Offices need to be the ones to determine which locations in their State don’t have good broadband.