The next update of the FCC broadband map, expected in late November or early December, is likely to have a considerable number of errors, according to sources familiar with the broadband data collection initiative on which the map will be based.
It’s an important issue as the government gets set to award tens of billions of dollars in funding to network operators to deploy broadband to areas where it is not available today.
The new map will be based on data collected from broadband providers. Those providers were required to enter broadband availability data on a per-location basis into an FCC-provided database. The database, created by a company contracted by the commission, was designed to provide address and geolocation information (latitude and longitude) for every broadband serviceable location in the country.
Therein lies the problem, sources told us.
Nearly 90% of rural broadband provider members of NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association saw some locations missing in the FCC database, said Mike Romano, NTCA executive vice president, in an interview with Telecompetitor. Another two-thirds of members saw extra locations, Romano noted.
Paul Solsrud, product manager for Cooperative Network Services, a consulting firm that assisted 35 to 40 rural providers with their broadband data submissions, also noted problems with the location database, known as the broadband serviceable location fabric. He shared specifics from three anonymous providers.
One provider saw 20% of its customer addresses match directly with the FCC database on the initial attempt to do so, while another provider saw 2.8% direct matches and a third saw 1.3%.
A series of address component and spatial filters were applied to the data to try to identify best case matches and if that failed, a painstaking visual match was attempted. Solsrud noted, for example, that when one provider traced the coordinates for one supposed broadband serviceable location, the location was in the middle of a swamp.
Even after the visual match process, the three providers that Solsrud referenced were unable to find matches for between 1.4% and 9.7% of locations.
Romano had a similar story. One NTCA member tracked down a supposed broadband serviceable location that was found to be a large boulder.
“When the new map comes out in December, we shouldn’t be celebrating,” Romano commented. He hastened to add, though, that the upcoming update “was destined to be incorrect” and advised against passing judgment on it until after a challenge process is completed.
“NTIA realized the maps won’t be done until the challenge process is completed,” Romano said. (He likely singled out NTIA because that agency will be responsible for the majority of the funding available for rural broadband deployments.)
The FCC Broadband Map Challenge Process
There might have been fewer inaccuracies in the broadband location database if the FCC had conducted a challenge process for the location data before requiring providers to submit their data. Instead, the challenge process didn’t start until September 12, which was 11 days after the deadline for providers to submit their broadband availability data.
The FCC undoubtedly opted for this approach because it is under pressure to get the broadband map updated as quickly as possible – in part because stakeholders want funding to be made available as soon as possible and in part because the commission has received ongoing criticism for several years about the inaccuracy of its broadband availability data: An entire census block is considered to have service even if only one location in the block has service available to it.
The Broadband DATA Act adopted in March 2020 directed the commission to update the data, but funding for that initiative wasn’t made available until months later. The FCC also uncovered another concern: there was no definitive database of all broadband serviceable locations in the U.S. Accordingly, one had to be created, which also took time.
Now that the challenge process has begun, Telecompetitor was surprised to note that the FCC didn’t provide a deadline for submitting challenges.
Romano noted that “it’s contemplated as an ongoing process.”
Nevertheless, only challenges submitted by a certain date will be reflected in the second iteration of the FCC broadband map, the one everyone hopes will be correct. The FCC just has not yet revealed that date.
According to Romano, every NTCA member he has spoken with has devoted “a ton of time” to try to reconcile the data and he expects them to file their challenges promptly. He also expects to see challenges filed by individual states, as the amount of funding allocated to each state will depend on the number of unserved locations in the state.
“The bigger issue in my mind is the commission adjudicating all of the challenges,” Romano said. “There might be a tendency to say, ‘Let’s deal with the bulk challenges.’”
Romano hopes the commission won’t opt to hold off on addressing the smaller challenges, which he said are most likely to come from NTCA members.
The FCC has a webinar about the broadband data challenge process scheduled for this Wednesday, September 28, at 4:00 p.m. ET.