The NTIA is requiring state broadband offices to have one more mapping challenge at the state level before the state can issue broadband grants. The NTIA issued a sample template for a state challenge process, but each state is allowed to develop its own challenge process. States are not required to wait for an update in the FCC mapping system before using any updated information when awarding grants.
The NTIA suggests that challenges can be made by ISPs who are considering asking for a BEAD grant. NTIA also suggests that states accept challenges from the public, and I assume that includes challenges from cities and counties as well.
This is the challenge that a lot of folks have been waiting for because there are still a lot of inaccuracies in the FCC maps. While some states did a vigorous review of the FCC maps and asked for map updates – many states did not. Some counties also put an effort into correcting the FCC maps – but many did not. This is the final chance to get locations declared as eligible for BEAD grants. I assume that States will not accept locations for BEAD grants that are not in the corrected maps.
This challenge is also the one that folks have been waiting for since the NTIA suggests that there can be a challenge against the claimed broadband speeds. A lot of the early map challenges had to do with getting the mapping fabric right – which is the database that is used to define the location of the homes and businesses in the country.
My consulting firm has been working with communities, and we are still seeing a lot of inaccurate information. In every county we have examined, we find ISPs claiming speeds of 100/20 Mbps or faster that are not supported by Ookla speed tests. We’re also finding coverage errors in the maps where ISPs are reporting homes as covered that are not. A lot of the earlier challenges fixed coverage problems that were grossly incorrect, but it takes a lot more effort to find smaller pockets of ten or twenty homes that can’t buy good broadband but for which some ISP claims coverage.
Many of the problems in the FCC maps are directly due to the FCC rules for ISPs to report broadband for the maps. ISPs are allowed to claim marketing speeds for broadband instead of the actual speed delivered. There are far too many cases where the advertised marketing speed is much faster than what is being delivered. ISPs can also claim areas as covered by broadband where the ISP can supposedly provide broadband in ten working days. Finally, we often find ISPs claiming broadband coverage where an engineering field review doesn’t find any of the claimed technology.
The mapping is only an issue for BEAD because the IIJA legislation that created the BEAD grants insisted that FCC mapping must be used to allocate grants. I’m sure that language was inserted into the legislation at the insistence of the big ISP lobbyists to make sure that grant funds were not used to ‘overbuild’ existing broadband. At the time the IIJA legislation was passed, the FCC maps were atrocious. They have now been improved to the point where I would say they are now merely dreadful – but nobody believes the FCC maps are accurate. Most people only have to look around their immediate neighborhood on the FCC maps to find a few overstatements of coverage. My team has looked in great detail at perhaps a dozen counties and found a lot of mapping errors. I can’t even begin to think what that means on a national scale.
Unfortunately, most people in the country have no idea how this complicated BEAD process works. After the grants have been awarded, I expect we’ll start to hear from unserved homes that are not going to be covered by a BEAD grant. I believe this is going to be a lot more homes than anybody at the NTIA, the FCC, or state broadband offices wants to acknowledge.
Hopefully, the ISPs who want to file BEAD grants will take a shot at cleaning up the map errors now. That’s the only way to get grant funding for locations that are underserved but which don’t show that on the FCC maps. Everybody interested in doing this needs to pay attention to the state broadband office. States will first issue a plan to the FCC describing the way it will conduct the mapping challenge. These plans will likely have a 30-day opportunity for public comments. If you don’t like the map challenge rules, holler! Sometime later, states will hold the mapping challenge, and most will likely have a narrow time window to file challenges.