Rural

States are making plans for awarding funding in the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, which has a total budget of $42.5 billion to cover some of the costs of deploying broadband in unserved rural areas. A key issue will be how to determine unserved areas.

The issue is particularly complex because concerns have arisen about how soon the FCC’s National Broadband Map will be accurate enough to be used for that purpose.

It’s worth noting that few, if any, states are likely to begin accepting applications for BEAD funding until next year and that the version of the FCC broadband map that will be released near year-end 2023 is expected to address many of the concerns that have been expressed about it.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot riding on that assumption and not every state may want to take that risk. Several weeks ago, BEAD Program Director Evan Feinman advised states that they could do their own challenge process for the FCC Broadband Map.

Telecompetitor talked to the directors of two state broadband offices to ask if they had any plans to do that. We also asked how the states plan to determine unserved locations for purposes of awarding BEAD funding.

Idaho Will Rely in Large Part on the FCC Map

One state that plans to rely, in large part, on the FCC map is Idaho.

When we asked how the state would determine unserved areas, Ramón S. Hobdey-Sánchez, broadband program manager for the Idaho commerce department, said “our plan is to have the underlying foundation of that map be the FCC data and we will layer other data on top of that.”

The data that will be layered on top will include socioeconomic data, speed test data and public and privately owned assets, particularly middle-mile assets.  Hobdey-Sánchez doesn’t expect the speed test data to be used in making changes to availability data, however, but instead will be for reference.

“I don’t think decisions will be made based on it,” he said.

The office did not make any challenges to the initial version of the FCC data that came out in June. But when Telecompetitor spoke with Hobdey-Sánchez on March 15, the broadband office had just filed challenges with the FCC related to the location database that came out late last year.

The FCC previously advised states and certain entities eligible to make bulk challenges that they should make challenges to location data by March 15 to maximize the likelihood that the challenges would be resolved in time to be incorporated into the next update of the location database expected in late 2023.

About 1,000 data points were included in Idaho’s bulk challenge. According to Hobdey-Sánchez, these involved either missing locations or locations that had been incorrectly geocoded. The state prepared the challenge by comparing the FCC data against state data sources such as voter registrations and NG911 information.

Those challenges won’t be reflected in the location database that NTIA plans to use to allocate BEAD funding to individual states, however, because that will be based on the location database that the FCC released in November and which is expected to reflect availability challenges filed by January 13.

While some stakeholders wanted more time to submit challenges, the FCC has stated that it cannot deviate from its update schedule and NTIA has said it will not delay the June 30 date targeted for making the state allocations.

According to an estimate prepared by Cartesian for ACA Connects, Idaho should receive about $620 million in the BEAD program. When Telecompetitor asked Hobdey-Sánchez if he believed that was an accurate estimate, he said he had seen estimates of anywhere between $400 million and $1 billion but added that the state hasn’t set such high expectations.

When asked, the state tells those making the inquiries that the state will be getting at least $100 million (the minimum that any state will receive) and likely more.

When Telecompetitor asked if the state had any plans to challenge its BEAD allocation if the allocation was below a certain amount, Hobdey-Sánchez said, “We haven’t had any of those types of conversations.”

The Idaho broadband office has not made any availability challenges to the FCC map, Hobdey-Sánchez noted. As an alternative, the office issued a press release calling on citizens to file location or availability challenges using the FCC system by March 15, a date chosen to coincide with the location challenge filing data encouraged by the FCC.

Hobdey- Sánchez noted that “the broadband office is trying to manage as much as we can with very little resources.”

Maine Did Its Own Map

Maine is an example of a state that did its own broadband map. As Andrew Butcher, president of Maine Connectivity Authority, explained in an interview with Telecompetitor, the state created an intelligence platform that aggregates data from multiple data sets.

Butcher sees that map playing a key role in determining unserved areas for purposes of awarding BEAD funding.   

“We as a state have been give the authority to have the source of truth be through our state map,” he explained.

He also noted that “if we have data that is more granular and in theory more accurate than just the FCC data, we can structure a challenge process around that data and our policies.”

Maine didn’t challenge the FCC location data that went into the current version of the map, Butcher explained. He noted that at the time the state would have had to file a location challenge in order to impact the BEAD allocations, it was still going through its own data collection process.

The state did, however, file 130,000 availability challenges in time for the January 13 filing date encouraged by the FCC. The FCC is still in the process of adjudicating those challenges but has accepted a high percentage of the ones that have been addressed so far, according to Butcher.

Cartesian estimates that Maine will receive $250 million in BEAD funding.

Asked if Maine would challenge the allocation if the amount offered was below a certain expected threshold, Butcher said, “At this time, I don’t know of any recourse we would have.”

Updated to clarify that the challenges that the Idaho broadband office filed on March 15 related to the location database that came out late last year.

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