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.