States are unable to resolve broadband map issues in a timely manner

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — States are racing against a deadline to challenge the map federal officials will use to divvy up the nation’s largest-ever investment in high-speed internet.

One share of the $42.5B Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (part of the infrastructure measure President Joe Biden) is at stake. signed into law last year.

States have until January 13 to contest a broadband speed chart released by the Federal Communications Commission last month. This map, which illustrates the haves/have nots of internet connectivity down to street addresses, is the first time it has been published.

Critics believe that the increase in internet-connected people has been long suspected by critics. overstated by the government, This is partly because agencies who created the maps have deferred information to telecommunications companies about where service is available.

Extending service to remote areas Providers of internet services with few customers can be costly. But, the ability to use the flood of federal funds to fill in the gaps is heavily dependent on being able identify their location.

Officials in West Virginia have submitted challenges to 138,000 homes, businesses, and other locations that they claim are missing. They’re also preparing at least 40.000 more.

“We’re going to find out,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. “There is no excuse that West Virginia — every nook and cranny, every person — if they’ve got electricity in their house, by God they can get internet in their house, too.”

The FCC map for the year 2015 shows that only 2% of U.S. addresses have broadband access, and 11% of those are considered to be underserved. These numbers are expected to rise following state challenges.

An earlier FCC map showed broadband availability at census block level. It meant that, if an internet provider claimed that it provides broadband to one residence within a census block then the entire block would be considered serviced.

In 2020, Congress gave the FCC the task of creating a more accurate broadband map. CostQuest was the company that it hired. They tapped tax assessment records and land use records as well as census data and geospatial information to create the underlayer of the map, showing all addresses where broadband can be installed. Next, the internet service providers provided information about what speeds they offer at each address.

To counter expected discrepancies, the public can challenge the map — an option that wasn’t available with the FCC’s census block-level maps.

“I like to refer to (the new FCC map) as census block-penetrating radar ,” said Jim Stritzinger, the director of South Carolina’s broadband office, which reported 33,000 state addresses missing from the map.

Mississippi’s state broadband director, Sally Doty, said her office found a “tremendous amount” of addresses missing in high-growth areas of the state, including DeSoto and Madison counties and along the Gulf Coast. The state launched a website in November that allows residents to run speed tests or fill out surveys about their internet service.

“If we have low speeds for an area that is reported as covered, it will allow us to investigate that further and determine the appropriate action,” Doty said, adding that she hopes to get 100,000 unique responses through the website before the end of the year.

Maine’s state broadband office sent engineers to some 2,500 addresses across populated areas where it predicted broadband technology was likely to be misreported. Meghan Grabill, a data analyst, stated that the engineers discovered approximately 1,000 discrepancies between what was on the FCC map, and what actually exists in Maine. This was over a period of two weeks. To identify any other discrepancies, the state will combine its field analysis results with data from internet providers and emergency dispatchers.

Some states have invested millions of dollars in the challenge process, while others claim they don’t have the funds to fully participate.

Two new employees were hired by Kansas’ state broadband office, bringing the total to four. Instead of collecting data in bulk, the state is focusing its efforts on webinars as well as public outreach to teach residents how to challenge this map.

“We’re walking them step by step through it,” said Jade Piros de Carvalho, Kansas’ broadband director.

Challenges to the map can include assertions that locations are missing or that the internet service depicted on the map isn’t actually available. You can challenge the map in bulk by state or local governments or at an individual level where residents confirm their address.

The FCC map mapping system West Virginia uses to verify its accuracy was created to provide urban addresses in large rural areas. This is to assist emergency service workers responding to 911 calls or other emergencies.

“These maps have been a challenge, and that’s putting it nicely, for years,” said Kelly Workman, director of West Virginia’s Office of Broadband, said of the FCC’s maps. “Everyone in West Virginia has known for a long time that these maps are not serving our state well.”

The Jan. 13 deadline was set so that the FCC can resolve challenges before the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announces states’ allotments in June 2023.

The states will in turn funnel the grant money to several entities, including internet service providers, local or tribal governments and electric co-ops, to expand networks where people don’t have good service. The money must be offered at a reasonable price to any entity that takes it. This service’s price will be approved by government regulators.

Each state will receive at least $100 million. The final allocations will be determined by several factors, including an analysis on unserved areas as shown in the FCC map.

Oursed locations are those that do not have reliable internet access at least 25 Megabits per sec (Mbps), download, and upload.

Some state officials, including those in Texas and Vermont, are asking for an extension of the deadline. However, the FCC has not indicated that it will change the Jan. 13 date.

Piros De Carvalho, Kansas’ broadband director, acknowledged the improvement in the FCC’s map, but he was concerned about whether certain states will be left behind by the timeframe of the challenge process.

“What makes it really unfortunate is we’re trying to shore up disparities in service, but are we inadvertently exacerbating these inequities by disadvantaging the most rural or economically distressed states that have lower capacities in their offices?” Piros de Carvalho said. “I think it might be an unintentional consequence of these timelines and requirements.”

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This story was contributed by Leah Willingham, an Associated Press reporter in Charleston, West Virginia. Harjai is a Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps member. Report for America is an independent national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercovered issues.

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