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States spent years mapping their broadband—now they fear the FCC might throw that data away

Daily Dot 8/3/2022 Karl Bode
Jessica Rosenworcel over broadband map of the United States © Provided by Daily Dot Jessica Rosenworcel over broadband map of the United States

State and federal governments are preparing to spend more than $50 billion to improve America's mediocre broadband. It’s the largest one-time taxpayer infusion into broadband in U.S. history. But the debate over who’ll get this money and where it will be spent is already gearing up to be a battle for the ages.

At the heart of the problem sits U.S government broadband mapping data, which has long been criticized as unreliable. While a new and improved mapping system is just months away, states say there’s still no system in place to let them challenge inaccurate data, meaning billions of dollars could easily be wasted in the months to come.

In Maine and New Hampshire, state leaders tell the Daily Dot they’re increasingly facing costly, cumbersome challenges by telecom monopolies looking to protect their turf and hoover up the lion’s share of this new taxpayer funding. And some leaders say they’re worried the FCC still hasn’t established meaningful safeguards to prevent this from happening under the new system. 

For decades, the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) flawed broadband maps have helped telecom monopolies lie about broadband availability and competition. Frustrated by federal incompetence, states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Maine took the matter into their own hands, mapping state broadband availability on their own.

While the FCC says a new and improved mapping system should go live sometime this fall, state leaders say the new system still tends to favor the industry by overstating broadband availability and speeds. As a result, billions in taxpayer dollars could be misdirected away from smaller competitors and communities, and into the pockets of monopolies.

“States are already getting better data because broadband is a street-by-street battle in most places, and the FCC data just is not granular enough for us to work with,” says Peggy Schaffer, executive director of the state of Maine’s broadband mapping and expansion effort, ConnectMaine.

The FCC’s new maps will still rely on an ISP’s advertised speed claims, not what’s actually available. In contrast, states like Maine have increasingly relied on their own speed tests to measure real-world consumer broadband speeds, displaying the results publicly.

Schaffer suggested that the FCC’s new system uses overly generous broadband definitions of terms like “underserved” and “unserved,” helping obscure the way industry often pushes sluggish DSL that doesn’t technically even qualify as broadband. She’s also worried the federal government may disregard years of experience in mapping at the state level. 

“We have collected over 37,000 speed tests since the beginning of 2020,” she said, noting that the FCC’s new mapping system discards these tests, arguing the data is irrelevant because ISPs may have upgraded their networks in the time since.  

“The FCC for this new map is saying anything before June 30, 2022, did not exist,” she said. “Does the FCC really think providers have done that much upgrading in the past couple of years? To rural networks? To urban networks? Seriously?”

It’s clear the FCC wants to be seen as the definitive authority on broadband maps. But thanks to years of FCC dysfunction, states, federal agencies like the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and even companies like Microsoft have taken the lead on mapping with a more keen eye on long-ignored issues like affordability

But Schaffer’s biggest concern centers around the fact that despite the launch of the new FCC maps being just a month or two away, the agency has yet to provide any guidelines whatsoever as to how states are supposed to challenge FCC and industry data they know to be incorrect.

More than $50 billion in new broadband subsidies are already headed to the states thanks to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and American Rescue Plan Act. Millions more are already flowing as part of older government broadband grant programs.

In each and every instance, dominant regional broadband monopolies are working overtime to ensure the lion’s share of this funding goes into their pockets, and not the pockets of smaller competitors or a growing array of community-owned and operated U.S. broadband networks.

This despite the fact that in city after city, entrenched monopolies have been accused of hoovering up billions in taxpayer money, then failing to complete the promised network builds. From Mississippi and West Virginia to New York and Pennsylvania, the history of misspent broadband subsidies by telecom giants is a long and tangled one.

Now as the biggest taxpayer-backed broadband funding push in U.S. history takes off, these same companies are once again having an oversized impact on who can or can’t get this historic new wave of funding.

“They will use the usual tactics to either block funding or to capture it themselves,” Dane Jasper, CEO of independent California ISP Sonic, told the Daily Dot. “They block funding by lobbying to keep speed thresholds as low as possible, making their existing networks ‘good enough,’ or by having errors in their favor in coverage mapping.”

States like Missouri and Illinois have already passed state laws banning broadband money from going to monopoly competitors or community broadband, in apparent violation of program rules. So far, these state laws have yet to be challenged by the NTIA, in part because federal leaders don’t want to slow the arrival of essential funds. 

In states like Maine, incumbent cable companies like Charter Communications have even hired political operatives to create fake consumer groups with one goal: blocking the funding or building of any broadband alternatives that challenge the broken, uncompetitive status quo.

One such group, the Alliance for Quality Broadband, convinced locals to vote down various community-backed broadband improvement efforts by claiming the efforts were overly expensive and unnecessary. Only later did several purported members of the “alliance” make it clear they didn’t support the organization’s methods or messaging

“If someone else wins a grant where they offer some sort of service, they’ll challenge it and slow the whole process down,” Jasper said.

That process is already playing out at the NTIA, where industry giants will impose costly and cumbersome challenges on smaller competitors and community broadband networks applying for broadband grants, falsely claiming the applications should be rejected because broadband is either already available, or the added competition would be somehow “duplicative.”

A collection of New Hampshire counties recently applied for a $26.2 million NTIA grant to improve the region’s substandard broadband, but quickly found themselves inundated with costly challenges by Charter and Comcast, who tried to claim the grants should be blocked because Charter’s service availability in the area was good enough.

Surveys of Grafton County residents show the majority of residents can’t get broadband at the FCC’s base definition of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) downstream, 3 Mbps upstream. Yet when Grafton applied for state funding, New Hampshire leaders say telecom monopolies quickly issued challenges in 3,000 of the 4,000 census blocks covered by the application. 

Bristol, New Hampshire town administrator Nik Coates says the challenges are an intentional way to bog down states—many of which lack the resources or manpower to keep pace with giant telecom monopolies—in costly bureaucracy. 

“My immediate response was that this was them telling us to go boil water,” Coates told me. “Here you go, prove that you can do this in these three thousand census blocks. Have fun figuring it out.”  

The concern now is who will the FCC listen to. 

Fortunately, experts say that even with its flaws, the FCC’s new mapping changes will be a significant improvement over past FCC efforts, which dramatically undercounted both the nation’s unserved and underserved. There are also promising early indications that the FCC is interested in listening to state concerns about the challenge process.

“The FCC has begun taking steps to engage states to gather feedback and insights into what will work for the state level input and challenge processes,” Brain Mefford, VP at Vetro, a broadband software and mapping company that helps states, told the Daily Dot.

Mefford added that there’s more than a decade of lessons to be learned from past state and federal mapping efforts, and agreed that there may be more than a few growing pains as the FCC gets the new mapping system up and running.

“Getting this right will not be a pain-free process and it’s going to take more time than most are admitting publicly,” he said. “It will be a messy process and states should be testing and experimenting now in order to be prepared to lead the process starting later this year.”

The FCC refused to comment specifically on the criticisms levied by the states. But Schaffer says she and several other state leaders met with FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel last Wednesday and was heartened by the agency’s receptiveness to her concerns.

“She really wanted to listen and figure out how to help us put together a real challenge process for state maps,” she said. “She was clear that it was an iterative process, and this is the first of many conversations about how to help us help them redefine these maps.”

The problem is that tens of billions in state grant money are already flooding state coffers now, and the FCC has a very narrow window of opportunity to ensure the money is being spent wisely. The FCC’s new maps won’t be available until this fall, and Schaffer concedes it could be months or years before the challenge process is implemented and disputes resolved.

Correcting this decades-old problem may be an ugly process. But the fact that it’s happening at all is a step in the right direction. 

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