December 14, 2021 | News

Biden’s ambitious broadband funding has a key impediment: an outdated map of who needs it

Writer: Cat Zakrzewski and Chris Alcantara

Published December 14, 2021
The Washington Post

For years, Don Edmonston complained to AT&T about his sluggish DSL Internet, the only option to get online at his home about 12 miles north of Athens, Ga. Video classes would suddenly freeze for his grandson, who attended third grade online from Edmonston’s home during the coronavirus pandemic.

A retired fiberoptics manufacturing engineer, Edmonston said he was willing to pay more for faster speeds, but company after company didn’t service his area. Then he learned that maps from the Federal Communications Commission, designed to show what Internet services are available to people around the country, told a different story: They reported that faster broadband speed Internet was available to him. According to the FCC maps, his home is eligible for a fixed wireless plan with T-Mobile, but when he checked their website, he was told it wasn’t available in his area.

“Maybe their mapping wasn’t sufficient to understand how the world really works out here,” Edmonston, 72, told The Post.

The federal government is slated to pump a record amount of funding into projects to expand Internet access and affordability. But Edmonston’s experience highlights a critical obstacle to the historic investment: a dearth of accurate data about which Americans actually have access to Internet service.

With $65 billion allocated to improve broadband, President Biden has claimed the infrastructure law will fundamentally transform the Internet, making high-speed access as ubiquitous as electricity, ensuring that tens of millions of Americans will soon be able to logon with speeds required for the basic activities of everyday life: to work remotely, to attend school, to access telemedicine. And $42 billion of that figure will be largely distributed among states to ensure broadband reaches even the most remote, unserved “last mile” customers.

The problems with the FCC’s maps have been well documented for years. Telecommunications experts, lawmakers and even the agency’s commissioners acknowledge that the maps overestimate the number of Americans who have reliable Internet connections. Because the maps are based on census data, if even one household in a census block a statistical area that conveys population data has broadband available, then the agency considers the entire group served. In rural areas, one block could cover dozens of square miles, creating an inaccurate picture.

Without accurate maps, infrastructure funding can’t be distributed to states since the government can’t assess where funding should be allocated.

In addition to using broad census data, experts have also criticized the agency for relying on information directly from the companies that provide Internet service, without adequate checks on whether it is accurate.

Jessica Rosenworcel, the chair the Federal Communications Commission, told lawmakers at a November confirmation hearing that the federal government’s maps “stink,” and that improving them is an urgent priority. But because of a combination of technical challenges and convoluted federal procurement processes, the improvement has been slow.

The mapping dilemma fits into a pattern for the FCC, which has previously been criticized for rushing funds out the door without first assessing needs. Under the Trump administration, the agency dispensed the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, an initial $9.2 billion auction to expand high-speed Internet into underserved areas.

But in December 2020, Free Press, a consumer advocacy group, reported some of the funds were actually going to urban areas that already have service.

The report showed the agency had awarded funds to Elon Musk’s Starlink to serve a road with no buildings and a few square feet of grass in Wynnewood, Pa., a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia. Bidding in the auction began just days before polls closed in the 2020 presidential elections. Rosenworcel criticized the Republican-led commission for pushing forward with the auctions without waiting for accurate data to be available. “This approach is not thoughtful policy, it’s rush-it-out-the-door electioneering,” she said in a statement at the time.

School and office shutdowns during the pandemic highlighted that reliable and affordable Internet is crucial, creating unprecedented political pressure for policymakers to improve digital infrastructure quickly. But unlike money allocated to roads, bridges, sewers and other public works projects, states have never managed an investment of this scale in Internet connectivity, making deployment particularly tricky. Most state broadband offices or programs are relatively new and generally have small staffs that will need to be expanded to handle the influx of funding.

State officials emphasize that it’s not just enough to ensure that people have access to broadband networks. They also have to make sure people can afford to pay for service and know how to use the Internet. The infrastructure package also allocates significant funding to affordability programs, as well as digital literacy programs.

Blair Levin, the director of the National Broadband Plan under the Obama administration, said he’s optimistic that in three to five years there will be almost no locations in the United States lacking an adequate broadband option. But he says it’s unlikely that an investment of this magnitude in high-speed Internet will ever be made again.

“This has been called a ‘once in a generation opportunity,’” Levin said. “I disagree with that. This is a once opportunity.”

Mapping the ‘last mile’

Millions of Americans live in rural areas with low population density and topographical barriers that leave Internet Service Providers with little financial incentive to provide service. But previous efforts to bring Internet to these “last mile” customers have been stymied by the error-ridden maps.

Efforts to reform the FCC’s mapping system have been underway for more than a year. In March 2020, as the pandemic moved large swaths of American life online, former president Donald Trump signed a bill into law that would require the FCC to collect more detailed data about the availability of Internet service. And in December 2020, Congress passed $65 million in funds to complete the job. But months later, the agency still can’t say when the new maps will be available.

And a lack of new data is making it impossible for state officials to plan for how they might use the new infrastructure funds.

Miriam Gillow-Wiles, the executive director of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments, said due to density and topographical challenges like mountains and canyons, government funds are needed to cover the tens of millions of dollars it costs to build Internet infrastructure in her region. But if a federal map inaccurately reports that an area is served, it can limit the ability of communities to access funding for rural areas.

“It’s really hard to gauge who has connectivity and who doesn’t,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s taking the FCC so long to get to these maps.”

In the absence of new FCC data, many states have taken matters into their own hands. Tennessee, North Carolina and others have started building their own maps as they tire of waiting for the federal government to produce its own, and as they develop strategies to deploy funds that became available for broadband deployment during the pandemic under the American Rescue Plan, a stimulus package passed in 2021.

Georgia has released its own maps which can report down to the location of a home, office or community building if an area is served or underserved. Broadband service must be available to more than 80 percent of locations in a census block for it to be served in the new map.

“Georgia’s fortunate because we’ve got our maps,” said Josh Hildebrandt, the director of broadband initiatives at the Georgia Technology Authority. “There are a lot of states that don’t have anything close to that.”

The state’s map shows far more people are unserved than the FCC’s error-ridden map. Edmonston’s address in Hull correctly appears as unserved on the state map.

The state defines broadband as Internet with a minimum download speed of 25 Mbps and a minimum upload speed of 3 Mbps. Edmonston’s download speed on his DSL averaged about 3 Mbps. After petitioning the FCC and exchanging emails with AT&T, earlier this month he gained access to a faster, fixed wireless service.

“It is critically important to have address-level mapping in order to target funding as precisely as possible to housing units currently lacking adequate fixed broadband service,” AT&T spokeswoman Megan Ketterer said in a statement. “We look forward to the creation of the new nationwide broadband maps so that areas that lack service are accurately identified and states and municipalities can invest in the broadband funding to help close those gaps.”

Without government funding, Internet providers only have incentive to build in populous or wealthy areas, where their investment can be recouped.

Once the federal government’s maps are completed, individual states are expected to have broad discretion over how to deploy the record amount of funding. Each state will get at least $100 million, plus additional funds based on the need shown in the new FCC maps. And some states are already deploying hundreds of millions in funding that became available under pandemic stimulus packages. That massive influx of cash could pose a challenge for state governments.

“When it comes to spending money on roads and bridges, every government has a department of transportation that has a lot of experience spending money,” said Levin, the official who worked on the National Broadband Plan. “There are no states that have a broadband office that has done significant work spending federal government money on broadband deployment, because there’s never been this money before.”

States are at varying levels of readiness: Georgia already has roughly 10 people across various agencies working on broadband, and the state is planning to spend at least $300 million from the American Rescue Plan on improving broadband. Other states just started their broadband plan in the fallout of the pandemic, like Texas, which just established a broadband development office in August.

Past mistakes

North Carolina has a goal of ensuring 80 percent of households have high-speed Internet subscriptions by 2025, up from the current 73 percent, according to Nathaniel S. Denny, a deputy secretary for the state’s Department of Information Technology Division of Broadband and Digital Equity. But people have to be able to afford service. The state currently considers a bill affordable if it is 2 percent or less of a household’s income; 1.3 million households currently exceed that threshold.

“If we’re granting infrastructure projects in a community where none of the people can afford the service … then it’s not as effective as an infrastructure program,” he said.

Chip Pickering, the CEO of the Internet company trade association INCOMPAS and former Republican Mississippi congressman, said it’s also crucial that new networks are “future proof” and built to support high speeds, unlike past efforts to expand the Internet that swiftly became obsolete.

“Our mistake has been that we subsidized and funded the past,” Pickering said. “We subsidized monopolies, and we subsidized old networks. Because we didn’t promote competition, telcos and cable companies have maintained outdated networks of copper and coaxial.”

But that can’t happen without leadership from the Federal Communications Commission on new maps, Pickering emphasized.

“Maps are a prerequisite to the funding to build the broadband networks of the future,” he said.