LOS ANGELES -- States are racing against a deadline to challenge the map federal officials will use to divvy up the nation's largest-ever investment in high-speed internet.
At stake is a share of the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, part of the infrastructure measure President Joe Biden signed into law last year.
States have until Jan. 13 to challenge a broadband speed map the Federal Communications Commission released last month that, for the first time, illustrates the haves and have nots of internet access down to specific street addresses.
Critics have long suspected that the number of people with internet connections has been overstated by the government, in part because agencies creating the maps have deferred to telecommunications companies to say where service is provided.
Extending service to remote areas with few customers can be expensive for internet providers, but using the surge of new federal funds to fill the gaps depends heavily on knowing where they are.
West Virginia officials have already submitted challenges for 138,000 underserved homes, businesses and other locations in the state that they say are missing, and they're preparing at least 40,000 more.
“We’re going to find out,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. “There is no excuse that West Virginia — every nook and cranny, every person — if they’ve got electricity in their house, by God they can get internet in their house, too.”
According to the first draft of this year's FCC map, 2% of residential addresses in the U.S. have no broadband access at all and 11% are considered underserved. But those figures are likely to rise after the state challenges.
Previous FCC maps depicted broadband availability at the census block level. That meant that if an internet service provider reported that it offered broadband to one home within a census block, the whole census block would be considered served.
But Congress in 2020 tasked the FCC with creating a more precise broadband map. It hired a company called CostQuest, which tapped tax assessment and land use records, as well as census and geospatial data, to create the underlying layer of the map showing every address where broadband can be installed. Then, internet service providers reported what internet speeds they actually offer at each address.
To counter expected discrepancies, the public can challenge the map — an option that wasn’t available with the FCC’s census block-level maps.
“I like to refer to (the new FCC map) as census block-penetrating radar ,” said Jim Stritzinger, the director of South Carolina’s broadband office, which reported 33,000 state addresses missing from the map.
Mississippi’s state broadband director, Sally Doty, said her office found a “tremendous amount” of addresses missing in high-growth areas of the state, including DeSoto and Madison counties and along the Gulf Coast. The state launched a website at the end of November where residents can run speed tests and fill out a survey about their internet service.
“If we have low speeds for an area that is reported as covered, it will allow us to investigate that further and determine the appropriate action,” Doty said, adding that she hopes to get 100,000 unique responses through the website before the end of the year.
Maine’s state broadband office sent engineers to some 2,500 addresses across populated areas where it predicted broadband technology was likely to be misreported. Over the course of two weeks, the engineers identified approximately 1,000 discrepancies between the information on the FCC map and what actually exists in the state, Meghan Grabill, a data analyst working on the project, said. The state is combining its results from the field analysis with data from internet providers, the postal service and emergency dispatchers to identify other discrepancies.
While some states are pouring millions of dollars into the challenge process, others say they lack the resources to fully participate.
Kansas' state broadband office recently hired two new staff members, boosting the total number to just four. Rather than collect data in bulk, the state has focused its efforts on webinars and public outreach to train residents how to challenge the map themselves.
“We’re walking them step by step through it," said Jade Piros de Carvalho, Kansas’ broadband director.
Challenges to the map can include assertions that locations are missing or that the internet service depicted on the map isn’t actually available. The challenges can be done in bulk, by state or local governments, or at an individual level, where residents confirm the information for just their address.
The mapping system West Virginia is using to fact check the FCC map was created to provide city-style addresses for large rural areas of the state in order to help emergency services workers respond to 911 calls and other emergencies.
“These maps have been a challenge, and that’s putting it nicely, for years,” said Kelly Workman, director of West Virginia’s Office of Broadband, said of the FCC's maps. “Everyone in West Virginia has known for a long time that these maps are not serving our state well.”
The Jan. 13 deadline was set so that the FCC can resolve challenges before the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announces states’ allotments in June 2023.
The states will in turn funnel the grant money to several entities, including internet service providers, local or tribal governments and electric co-ops, to expand networks where people don’t have good service. Entities that take this money will have to offer a low-cost service option. Government regulators will approve the price of that service.
Each state will receive a minimum of $100 million and final allocations will be based upon several factors, including an analysis of unserved locations as shown on the FCC map.
Unserved locations are those without reliable service of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.
Officials in some states, including Texas and Vermont, have pressed for the deadline to be extended, but the FCC has given no indication it will move back the Jan. 13 date.
While acknowledging that the new FCC map is a marked improvement over past versions, Piros de Carvalho, Kansas' broadband director, questioned whether the timeline of the challenge process will leave certain states behind.
“What makes it really unfortunate is we’re trying to shore up disparities in service, but are we inadvertently exacerbating these inequities by disadvantaging the most rural or economically distressed states that have lower capacities in their offices?” Piros de Carvalho said. “I think it might be an unintentional consequence of these timelines and requirements.”
Associated Press reporter Leah Willingham in Charleston, West Virginia, contributed to this story. Harjai is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.