The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in the midst of a multi-year, multi-million-dollar effort to update its broadband coverage map. But the gears of government turn slowly and rather than waiting for the new FCC maps, several states including Virginia, New York, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Florida have either already released or are developing their own maps. While this might seem like a duplicative effort on the surface, Anna Read, senior officer for Pew's Broadband Access Initiative, told Fierce the state-level maps will complement rather than compete with the new FCC map.
Officials have touted the forthcoming FCC map as a revolutionary step forward, arguing the data it is set to provide will be significantly more accurate than the Form 477 information the agency has previously relied on to track coverage. But there are limitations to its scope.
An FCC representative told Fierce that as mandated under the Broadband DATA Act passed in 2020, its new map will specifically measure “broadband availability.” This will be determined on a location-by-location basis and be based on reporting of maximum advertised speeds. Of course, there will be a challenge process for third parties, state and local governments, Tribal entities and the public to rebut coverage claims, with this designed to help ensure the data reported by providers is accurate. The FCC representative said the agency will also cross-check provider data with crowdsourced information. But the narrow scope of its data collection means the map won’t include information on things like adoption, affordability or the quality of the broadband service that’s actually delivered.
States, in contrast, have been adding a variety of layers to their broadband coverage maps. Read noted these include overlays for things like speed test data, community anchor institutions, transportation corridors and areas which are due to receive federal broadband funding. She added the creation and maintenance of many state maps was mandated by each state’s legislature, meaning these maps aren’t likely to be pushed aside anytime soon.
Alexis Carey, Public Relations director for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), told Fierce the state’s new map includes tools which enable analysis of “coverage by county and city borders, electoral boundaries, school district borders, and tribal areas.” It also allows users to see what broadband technology types are available in different areas and see where state-funded broadband grants have been awarded to expand broadband access. DHCD was the agency in charge of putting out the new map.
Though Texas is still developing its map, Greg Conte, director of the Texas Broadband Development Office, likewise told Fierce the state "will have the option to go beyond the minimum standards set forth by the legislation and add various layers for further exploration and discovery, including public speed test results, community anchor institutions and political boundaries."
He added "States that develop their own map will have more control on how and where to close their digital divide.... For states to rely on the federal government to develop and maintain a tool so crucial to addressing the needs of state residents and businesses has proven inadvisable. A state without a broadband map is akin to driving without headlights - eventually it will get dark."
The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which allocated $65 billion for broadband, mandated the FCC maps be used to dole out the federal funding to the states. Charlie Meisch, director of the Office of Public Affairs at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), told Fierce states looking to prepare broadband plans before the FCC maps are released can take a variety of actions. Among other things, he noted they can set up broadband offices, focus on scaling up capacity for their existing grant-making functions and conduct needs assessments with local communities. They can also use existing Form 477 and commercial data “to generate budget estimates and begin to understand the scope of their deployment challenge.”
State-level maps, meanwhile, will continue to be useful. For instance, Read said they might be referenced for certain state grant programs. And Carey noted local governments and state officials in Virginia may be able to use its new map to plan for “non-deployment activities” related to IIJA funding. “For example, programs which provide connected devices may be better able to target investment to areas which have existing options for broadband connectivity,” she said.
The FCC representative indicated the agency expects to begin receiving bulk challenges to collected data “shortly after” the filing window for providers closes on September 1. Individual challenges are expected to follow once the maps are published later in the fall. Asked how long the challenge process is expected to last, the representative said: “The FCC will work to resolve all challenges as quickly as possible.”
This story has been updated to include comments from Greg Conte, director of the Texas Broadband Development Office.