Billions in federal broadband funding is stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to release new coverage maps which will be used to determine how much each state will receive. But while the FCC just announced plans to come out with the first version of its new map in mid-November, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) chief Alan Davidson indicated his agency won’t use the first rendering to divvy up broadband support.
Speaking during an Internet Innovation Alliance event, Davidson explained that while the NTIA is eager to get money from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program out the door quickly, “we need to do this accurately.” That means waiting until the FCC's new map has gone through at least one full challenge process.
“We realized pretty early on the first draft of this new map which is going to come out this fall, it’s not going to be as good as we’d like it to be,” he said. “We’ve heard from states and from communities they want the chance to challenge the map. They want at least one shot at coming in and saying ‘you missed these locations in our community that aren’t on your fabric, aren’t shown as locations’ or ‘a provider says they’ve got high-speed internet service on this street but we can tell you they actually don’t.’”
On September 12, the FCC is set to kick off its first challenge process for the underlying location fabric – or grid of serviceable locations – being used for its new map. That process will initially be open to operators and government entities before expanding to include individual challenges from the public once the initial coverage map is released in November.
An FCC representative told Fierce the second version of the fabric is expected to be released in December and will be the basis for a second collection of coverage data from ISPs. The submission window for the second coverage data collection will be open from December 31, 2022 to March 1, 2023.
The FCC has given itself about two and a half months to crunch the numbers between the close of its initial data collection (September 1) and the release of its first map (mid-November). If it takes the same amount of time to produce the subsequent iterations, that means the second version of the FCC’s map won’t be available for the NTIA to use until at least mid-May 2023.
The aforementioned timeframe assumes the challenge process goes smoothly and that potential variables like lawsuits don’t spring up.
Sean McDevitt, a partner at telecom consulting firm Arthur D. Little, told Fierce he’s heard concerns from players across the industry about the scale of the task the FCC is attempting to tackle and the timeframe in which it is trying to do so.
That’s in part because there will likely be “some level of interpretation and omission” in the coverage data submitted to the agency by the thousands of operators across the country. At this point, the rules for the challenge process are a bit unclear, he added. That, coupled with a strong financial incentive for states to fight for every unserved location to be counted, could make for “vigorous” disputes, he said.
Under BEAD program rules, each state will receive an initial allocation of $100 million, with the remainder of their funding to be calculated by dividing the number of unserved locations in each state by the total number of unserved locations in the country to determine their proportion of the available money.
If the $42.45 billion in BEAD funding was divvied up evenly across all 56 eligible states and territories, each would receive in the realm of $700 million to $800 million for broadband. But because the money is being awarded proportionally to account for unserved areas, some states stand to receive as much as $1 billion to $2 billion, McDevitt said. “This is generational,” he said. “This is legacy material for a governor…The stakes are really high for state governments.”
During the webinar, Davidson reiterated the government expects BEAD and related programs to create upwards of 100,000 jobs and said the NTIA has begun encouraging states to use some of their federal funding to fuel workforce development programs.
“We have heard from industry this [labor] is going to be a huge challenge,” he said. “We’ve been out there speaking to them [states] and we want to do this more, talking to community colleges, talking to people who are thinking about skills development. How can we be taking this moment while we’re getting those maps, figuring out how to deploy the money, to be training up a workforce that’s ready when the money comes to be part of building these networks?”
“You’ll see more on that, that’s a big push here,” Davidson added.
But according to McDevitt, whether or not states decide to use funding for workforce development will likely be a “political calculation based on how acute the need is” to connect un- and underserved communities as well as a practical one based on the state’s individual finances.