One More BEAD Map Challenge

There is still one more chance for local communities or ISPs to fix the maps that will be used to allocate BEAD grant funding. Under the NTIA rules for the BEAD grant process, every State Broadband Office (SBO) must conduct one more challenge process to the maps. This must be done sometime after an SBO has submitted its planned grant rules to the NTIA and before any BEAD grant can be awarded.

The Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for the BEAD grant says that a unit of local government, nonprofit organization, or broadband service provider can challenge the maps used by each state that define locations that are eligible for BEAD – meaning that the fastest broadband speed offered currently would be slower than 100/20 Mbps.

Every state will have its own timeline, but it’s likely that mapping challenges will done in the first quarter of next year. SBOs are supposed to file their BEAD plans with the NTIA by the end of this year, and so far, only two states have made that filing.

It’s expected that most states will use the FCC maps to define the grant-eligible areas, although states are free to ask the NTIA to use their own version of the maps. The FCC maps were used to allocate the BEAD dollars to states, but states are free to define grant-eligible areas for purposes of awarding grants.

I know from working around the country that there are still plenty of places that should be grant-eligible, but that are still misclassified on the FCC maps. Most States challenged the FCC maps earlier this year, but many states did not have the staff or the facts needed to challenge the maps at the detailed level needed to correct the maps. The FCC map challenge process is complicated, and a lot of valid map challenges were not accepted due to not meeting the FCC’s challenge format.

Any map challenge is going to be most effective if a challenger has some sort of data to support the challenge. Many ISPs are leery of using speed tests as a basis for a map challenge. There is some basis for this since many speed tests are slow due to reasons outside of the control of the ISP, such as a poor WiFi router inside a home.

But I believe that speed tests are a great tool in some circumstances. To be effective, there needs to be a large enough sample of speed tests taken in any geographic area. With enough speed tests, false claims on the FCC map become fairly obvious. For example, if an ISP is claiming in the FCC maps that its technology is delivering speeds greater than 100/20 Mbps, but there are no speed tests even close to that speed, it’s almost certain that the ISP is exaggerating its speed in the FCC reporting.

Challenging a map can get tricky. There are technologies like DSL or FWA wireless where speeds are slower as the distance between a customer and a hub increases. A telco that claims 100 Mbps DSL might be telling the truth for customers close to the DSLAM core – but customers even a relatively short distance further away won’t be able to achieve that speed. I often see telcos and cellular ISPs claiming a uniform speed across a large footprint when that is not possible with the technologies.

As anybody who digs deeply into the FCC maps knows, there are ISPs that just overstate the speed capabilities. They may not be breaking any FCC rules by doing so since ISPs are free to report marketing speeds to the FCC instead of actual speeds. But market speed overstatements can make a neighborhood ineligible for BEAD funding – which would be a shame since there might not be another chance for such places to get broadband funding in the foreseeable future.

It’s likely that there will be a short time window for filing challenges, so anybody interested in doing so should be prepared early and should keep a close eye on the State Broadband Office website to note important events.

The Individual FCC Map Challenge

Hopefully, the word is getting out that individuals can challenge the FCC mapping. We’ve known for years that the FCC mapping is full of errors. ISPs often claim coverage and broadband speeds that are not actually available.

The new FCC map includes the ability to challenge the information that ISPs claim about the coverage at your home or business. The challenge process is built directly into the FCC Broadband map. Anybody can zero in on the map and see the broadband options that ISPs say are available at your location. There are a number of issues you can challenge for a given ISP:

  • The ISP denied a request for service via phone, the company’s website, or another method.
  • The ISP does not offer the technology reported on the FCC broadband map.
  • The ISP is unable or failed to schedule an installation date within 10 business days of your service request.
  • The ISP scheduled an installation but failed to perform the install at the scheduled date and time.
  • The ISP wants a fee greater than the advertised fee for an installation.
  • The ISP does not offer a product with the speed reported on the map. This challenge doesn’t say the ISP doesn’t deliver the speed, just that they didn’t offer the speed listed on the map.
  • No wireless or satellite signal is available at your location.
  • The ISP must construct new network to reach your location. Report if the ISP wants you to pay for construction.

If you challenge any of these items for a given ISP, the FCC will forward on your challenge to the ISP. If that ISP doesn’t respond or dispute the challenge, it must change its reporting for that location on the FCC map. For example, if it doesn’t offer service at your location, it must take you off its FCC map. If the ISP doesn’t offer the speed claimed to the FCC, it would have to lower the claimed speed it offers.

If the ISP disputes your claim, it must provide evidence to you and to the FCC that broadband is available at your location. After a dispute, the ISP has 60 days to reach an agreement with you about its claim. If you and the ISP can’t come to an agreement, the FCC says that it will then resolve the dispute within 90 days. That’s a real puzzler because the FCC doesn’t have the staff to process large volumes of such claims – they are banking on the ISP and the consumer reaching an agreement or the ISP backing down on the claim made on the maps.

The FCC hopes that over time that millions of such challenges will clean up the FCC mapping. The FCC believes that nobody knows more than you about what is available at your home. Rural folks, in particular, have dealt with ISPs that advertise but can’t actually deliver broadband to their home.

The challenge is somewhat weak in that making a challenge will rarely find you a broadband solution. But it’s possible that an ISP will agree to connect you after you make a challenge. The real benefit of the challenge process is to the whole community in that the FCC map gets cleaned up so that we can finally see and count the folks who can’t buy broadband. When it’s proven that your area doesn’t have broadband, the area becomes available for broadband grants.

Unfortunately, the challenge does not include the one thing that folks most want to challenge. You can’t file a formal challenge against an ISP that delivers speed that are far slower than what they sold to you. For example, you can’t file a formal challenge if an ISP sells you ‘up to’ 100 Mbps but delivers 3 Mbps. The FCC will accept this information, but they will treat it as a consumer complaint and not a mapping challenge. Unlike the challenge process, an ISP does not have to respond to a complaint. In fact, by deregulating broadband, the FCC under Ajit Pai weakened the complaint process to the point that it is toothless.

Note that you must provide your name and contact information to make a challenge because the FCC or an ISP might want to contact you. This means you can only challenge for your own location and not your neighbors. The real benefit of the challenge process will come if enough people in neighborhoods make the complaint to get the area maps corrected.