Averting a Mapping Disaster?

Alan Davidson, the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, recently announced that the agency is canceling plans to use the first iteration of the new FCC maps that the FCC says will be available by early November. Davidson says that he feels obligated to let the FCC’s challenge process play out before using the mapping data. I’m sure this wasn’t an easy decision, but it says that it’s better to hold out for a more accurate map rather than settling for the first iterations of the new FCC maps.

This decision will clearly add more time and delay to the $42.5 billion BEAD grant program. But the decision to wait recognizes that using incorrect maps would almost inevitably mean lawsuits that could delay the grant program even longer.

The timing of the new maps became unfortunate when Congress mandated that the FCC maps must be used to allocate over $38 billion in grant funding to states. The FCC has been stating all summer that it hopes that the new maps will be relatively accurate and will fix many of the obvious problems in the current broadband maps. If it wasn’t for the pressure of the BEAD grant program, the FCC would have had several cycles of the new maps to smooth out kinks and errors in the reporting before they had to bless the new maps as solid. The NTIA decision to delay relieves the pressure to have the first set of maps be error-free – which nobody believes will happen. I have a hard time recalling any cutover of a major government software system that was right the first time, and the FCC’s assurances all summer have felt more like bravado than anything else.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been talking to the engineers and other folks who are helping ISPs with the new maps. I didn’t talk to anybody who thinks the new maps will be solid or accurate. Engineers are, by definition, somewhat cautious folks, but I expected to find at least a few folks who thought the new maps would be okay.

I’ve been saying for six months that the likelihood of the new maps being accurate is low, and I was thinking about not writing anything more about mapping until we see what the new maps produce. However, I was prompted to write about mapping again when I saw a headline in FierceTelecom that quoted Jonathan Chambers of Conexon saying that the new maps will be a train wreck. Conexon is working with electric cooperatives all across the country to build broadband networks, which gives the company an interesting perspective on rural issues.

Jonathan Chambers cites two reasons for pessimism. One is the reason I already mentioned, which is that it’s irrational to use the outputs of a new federal mapping system to allocate billions of dollars between states. He says that there are simpler alternatives that would take all of the pressure off the new mapping system. He’s right, but unfortunately, Congress specifically required In the IIJA legislation that the FCC maps be used. It would take an act of Congress to change that ruling.

Chambers is also pessimistic about the challenge process that is being allowed for the new maps. He expects the challenges to be major and ongoing. It seems unlikely that the FCC is prepared to investigate the huge number of protests that could come from every corner of the country claiming that the new maps got the facts wrong.

My discussions with engineers raised other questions not mentioned by Chambers. Some engineers told me that the underlying mapping fabric has a lot of mistakes. This is where CostQuest, the firm that created the new mapping system, laid out the location nationwide of every possible broadband customer. This was a nearly impossible task in the short time the company had to create the maps. I’ve been working for years with local governments that use GIS data to define potential broadband locations, and it’s always a challenge to identify only those buildings where somebody might buy broadband and exclude buildings used for some other purpose.

My biggest concern is that ISPs are still allowed to report marketing speeds instead of actual speeds, and I fear that ISPs will be motivated to overstate broadband speeds in the new maps (like many have done in the old ones). Any areas designated by the maps to already have broadband available at 100/20 Mbps will be declared ineligible for the BEAD grants, and any ISP that wants to protect against being overbuilt has a high motivation to claim that speed – and it seems likely that many of them will do so. I don’t know if this is true, but my interpretation of the FCC map challenge is that the FCC won’t entertain challenges based on speed, but only on the coverage area. If that is true there will be a huge uproar from states and communities that get disadvantaged from deceptive reporting by ISPs.

I’ve also heard from ISPs in the last week that were unable to navigate the new mapping system by the deadline. These are relatively small ISPs, but many of them have built fiber and it’s not good to have them excluded from the maps. I’ve heard from multiple sources that the new mapping system is not easy to use. I’ve heard from ISPs who didn’t have an engineer who was able to certify the maps and just gave up.

I guess we’ll find out in a few months how the first draft of the maps turns out. The FCC says it will release the results by early November. I expect there are a whole lot of folks who are poised to compare the new maps to their local knowledge of actual broadband usage – and then the challenges will begin.