As the US federal government gets closer to handing out billions in new state grants for broadband, one question mark over the proceedings is what the FCC's updated broadband data will foretell for states and providers.
FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel shared an update on Friday announcing the Commission had opened its new system to collect information on where 2,500 broadband providers deliver service. Providers have until September 1 to submit data.
"For too long, our broadband maps have been a patchwork with information gaps that impeded the ability of policymakers to assure that critical funding efforts could be precisely targeted to deploying broadband facilities to consumers and communities most in need. The new Broadband Data Collection will tie together data from multiple sources to give us an accurate, detailed, and evolving picture of broadband availability that is much needed and long overdue," said Rosenworcel.
The new federal broadband data is supposed to make up for the Form 477 flaw, or the fact that the FCC has historically relied on coverage data per census block, as submitted by ISPs.
In a recent conversation with Light Reading, Jim Stegeman, CEO of CostQuest – the company creating the new broadband fabric for the FCC – said this process differs because it gets data at the location level.
"There's about seven-and-a-half million blocks reported to the FCC with service. We're now going to go to 114 million individual points," he said.
However, he added, the accuracy of that data will depend on "how well the broadband providers actually report."
To that end, not everyone is optimistic.
"The data submitted to the FCC will be inaccurate, and not in the little bits. It'll be inaccurate all across the country," said Jonathan Chambers, principal with Conexon, a consulting firm that works with rural electric cooperatives on building fiber broadband networks.
"The only reason to do this data collection is for the rural areas. And that's where the most inaccurate data will be submitted to the FCC," he said.
Chambers' concern is for those "at the end of the line" of a service provider's coverage area that will be left out if cable and fixed wireless providers overstate their coverage.
"Fiber data will be accurate and all of the rest of the data that gets submitted to the FCC will be inaccurate," he said.
Conexon is itself engaged in fiber delivery in rural America. It recently announced a $40 million partnership with Georgia electric co-op Ocmulgee EMC where Conexon Connect – Conexon's ISP arm – will deliver fiber broadband services on behalf of the co-op to homes and businesses across middle Georgia. This marks Conexon Connect's eighth such partnership in the state.
Most of Conexon's partnerships are in areas where it was a winning bidder in the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction . The company participated in the auction directly as well as on behalf of its Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium, co-ops for which Conexon files applications, and for which it builds and designs networks. In total, the FCC has authorized $460 million "give or take" for Conexon's projects, Chambers said.
Chambers isn't the only one with reservations about the FCC's mapping process. Asked by Light Reading if she's optimistic about it, Peggy Schaffer, executive director for ConnectMaine, responded: "No."
She went on to say that it's as yet unclear what's needed from state offices like hers, and the FCC's timeline for getting through the mapping and challenge process seems optimistic.
Further, she added, the data the FCC is collecting from ISPs will likely overstate coverage because it's based on "advertised speeds" and not "deliberate speeds."
"There's a huge difference between what they advertise that you can get and what you can actually get," she said.
Indeed, while states will have the opportunity to challenge the FCC's new data with their own, that challenge process will further delay funding distribution.
"We won't have maps for another year, maybe two years. Maybe longer than that," said Chambers.
The order of operations for funding the buildout of broadband networks, as spelled out in the infrastructure law, dates back to the Broadband DATA Act – a piece of legislation passed in March 2020.
The Broadband DATA Act mandated that the FCC develop data and maps that accurately reflect the state of broadband access across the US. That new map was then to become the basis for future federal broadband spending.
But the process was met with delays. To start, Congress didn't allocate funding for the FCC to implement the legislation until December 2020.
At that point, the Commission conducted a review that "made clear that the FCC had an enormous amount of work to do to prepare, develop, and support the systems required for compliance with the law and its objectives," said Rosenworcel in her note on Friday.
Further delaying matters, the legislation – which called for RFPs from vendors for a new broadband serviceable location fabric – also allowed for a 100-day review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) if a challenge was brought by a non-winning bidder. Such a challenge was brought by LightBox, which stopped the FCC from moving forward with its selected vendor, CostQuest until late February 2022.
While all that was happening, the US Congress passed and President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in late 2021, with $65 billion for broadband included – the vast majority of which is to be distributed based on new FCC data.
As per rules set by the Commerce Department – which is overseeing $48 billion of the funding for broadband – states will each get an initial $100 million, followed by an as-yet-unknown amount determined by state plans based on FCC mapping data.
Chambers says this is "completely backwards."
"I think you've got to tell people what their budget is before you ask them to give you the plan," said Chambers. He added that NTIA should at least be telling states their "probable allocation."
And while the new grants, map and funding rules all purport to make up for years of unsuccessful funding programs and neglect by incumbent providers, Chambers argues that the delays are by design, influenced by incumbents that lobbied for the Broadband DATA Act among other related policies.
"The only folks that benefit from a delay are incumbents who don't intend to upgrade their networks or don't need additional funding to upgrade their networks because the only thing more money gets for them is competition," said Chambers. "Meanwhile, that one person at the end of the line, two miles away from the last person, still has no service."
- Conexon Connect gets $435M in latest RDOF round to serve fiber through rural co-ops
- CostQuest counts 23-25M homes, businesses unserved or underserved by broadband
- FCC sets September 1 deadline for broadband data collection
- Commerce Sec promises Fed oversight on state broadband plans
- US House passes Biden's infrastructure bill with $65B for broadband