With an accurate broadband map still the critical missing piece in the United States' plan to close the digital divide, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel told a House subcommittee that the new map will "absolutely" be ready by the fall.
"My goal is to build the kind of maps that are not just good for the moment we're in but provide a framework and a structure that people can use five to ten years from now," said Rosenworcel last week during a House Energy and Commerce hearing called Connecting America: Oversight of the FCC.
In March – following a review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) – it was announced that CostQuest would fulfill the FCC's contract for the national broadband location serviceable fabric. While the FCC tapped CostQuest for the project in November, another bidder, LightBox, protested the award. As per the Broadband DATA Act mandating the creation of the new FCC map, the agency was required to pause for 100 days while the GAO reviewed the protest.
"We got slowed up in that process because federal contracting rules required us to put our pencils down for 100 days. But we were victorious earlier this month," said Rosenworcel. "Now it's all systems go."
The chairwoman also referenced other work the agency has done to facilitate the mapping process, including bringing in a broadband and data architect, acquiring systems "to make sure we have the capacity to manipulate this data" and beta testing those systems with wireless broadband maps and new propagation models.
According to Rosenworcel, carriers will begin submitting data in June and that data will be converted into maps in the fall.
Rosenworcel also confirmed that the agency will start a "challenge process" once the maps are ready. The process, she said, will "let states, localities, tribes and consumers take a look at our maps and tell us what we got wrong and then make the carriers respond to that."
That challenge process is mandated by the Biden administration's Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) which allocates $65 billion for broadband funding. According to the law:
After submitting an initial proposal under subsection (e)(3) and before allocating grant funds received under this section for the deployment of broadband networks, an eligible entity shall ensure a transparent, evidence-based, and expeditious challenge process under which a unit of local government, nonprofit organization, or other broadband service provider can challenge a determination made by the eligible entity in the initial proposal as to whether a particular location or community anchor institution within the jurisdiction of the eligible entity is eligible for the grant funds, including whether a particular location is unserved or underserved.
While the FCC is charged with making the maps, the law also grants power to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to amend the challenge process as necessary – given the NTIA is responsible for distributing the lion's share of broadband funding in the IIJA. NTIA is in the process of finalizing grant program rules for broadband builds funded through that legislation and plans to issue a notice of funding opportunity in May.
In a recent letter to NTIA Chief Alan Davidson, Matt Polka, president and CEO of ACA Connects, said the challenge process will be necessary because "this initial map will not be sufficiently accurate – or 'right' – because it will be based on two vital sets of unverified information – a Broadband Fabric created by an FCC vendor and the filings of broadband providers." (Speaking with Broadband World News for an upcoming episode of The Divide podcast, Polka suggested that the challenge process should take four to six months.)
Pressed during last week's House hearing by Illinois Representative Robin Kelly, Rosenworcel put a finer point on the importance of getting the maps right.
"For too long at the FCC, we've had maps that don't work, that overstate service. And as a result when we have federal dollars, we don't always send them to the right places. So we've got to put a premium right now on getting it right, because we're spending more money on broadband deployment than ever before," she said.
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— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.
A version of this story first appeared on Broadband World News.