The text of a Senate bill that aims to improve the accuracy of federal broadband maps was made public yesterday.
The bill, known as the Accurate Map for Broadband Investment Act of 2023, calls for a reallocation process for the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, which is designed to cover some of the costs of making broadband available to unserved rural areas.
The bill was introduced on March 30 by Democratic Senator Jacky Rosen from Nevada and Republican Senator John Thune from South Dakota and has been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
At the time the bill was introduced, the sponsors said the goal was to “fix” the “deeply flawed” FCC National Broadband Map that will be used to determine state allocations for the BEAD program.
Each state is slated to receive funding based on the number of locations in the state that do not have broadband available in comparison with the number of such locations nationwide.
Some stakeholders have challenged the accuracy of the map, arguing either that locations are missing or that locations indicated as having service available to them do not have service available.
Other stakeholders argue that additional time to tweak the map would not materially impact state BEAD allocations. Those in the latter group say it’s important to get funding rolled out promptly so that unserved areas can get broadband more quickly.
The latest update to the map is expected to be made public in May or June and state BEAD allocations are scheduled to be made based on that map by June 30.
The Senate bill would not change that plan but would add a reallocation process based on a later version of the map. The reallocation process would occur 210 days after the date on which the initial allocations are made. Assuming the initial allocations occur on June 30 as planned, that would put the reallocation date on or about February 5, 2024.
The timeline outlined suggests that the second calculation of state allocations would be based on the version of the National Broadband Map that is expected to be available in December.
States Only Get 20% of BEAD Funds Initially
The BEAD program was created in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and a close reading of the act reveals that states must go through a two-step process before funding can be released to them. The timeline specified in the act calls for a state to submit an initial proposal for how it plans to use the funding, which NTIA must then approve before 20% of the state’s allocation can be released.
The proposed bill would amend the IIJA to add a second calculation of state allocations, upon which the remainder of funding available to a state would be based.
It’s an interesting approach to addressing concerns about the National Broadband Map because it would enable the BEAD program to kick off as scheduled. But it seems that states would have difficulty planning for their funding programs if the full amount of BEAD funding available to them wouldn’t be known for an additional seven months.
“If you don’t know how much money you’re going to get, how do you do your plan?” Blair Levin, policy advisor for New Street Research, asked rhetorically in an interview with Telecompetitor about the bill.
Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting, had a different concern.
“The real issue is if you wait three months or six months or nine months or two years, are the the maps going to be that much better?” said Dawson in a Telecompetitor interview.
“You still have the whole issue of speeds being claimed incorrectly,” added Dawson, who consults with rural service providers and has been closely following mapping issues. The FCC National Broadband Map is based on data collected from service providers, who may not always deliver the speeds that they claim to deliver.
Will the Bill Become Law?
The likelihood of the Senate bill becoming law is unclear.
What the two senators who introduced the bill have in common is that they are both from states that are expected to receive a relatively small amount of funding through the BEAD program, according to estimates based on program rules and based on the current version of the National Broadband Map.
States that are expected to be allocated large amounts of funding on June 30 may be less likely to support the bill.
According to Levin, almost any federal legislation has less than a 50% chance of passing and that’s true of the mapping bill, in particular, because “while a lot of states agree with the diagnosis, they’re troubled by the remedy, which looks to them like a delay.”
Updated with comments from Levin