A federal effort to map out and better understand who in America has decent internet and who does not is already getting challenged by those in the know, including the Colorado Broadband Office, which has submitted 13,000 challenges of the data.
The map is just two weeks old.
And the state isn’t done challenging the data collected by the Federal Communications Commission, said Brandy Reitter, executive director of the state’s broadband office.
“Thirteen thousand is a lot but likely doesn’t include all missing locations,” Reitter said. “We are still submitting locations that are missing and not accurate to the FCC. Most of what is missing is located in higher density areas of the state that have experienced the most growth over the last several years. We will keep identifying these locations until the FCC maps are accurate. It’s an ongoing process.”
The map is also preliminary and its accuracy could help states like Colorado gain millions in federal infrastructure grants. This is also the start of a major FCC overhaul to improve the accuracy of federal broadband maps. The old map would count an entire census block even if just one house had internet speeds of at least 25 megabits down and 3 up. That resulted in the vast majority of Colorado appearing to have adequate broadband.
“The problem is that the FCC’s maps had previously relied on information that failed to paint the whole picture of who did and who did not have the internet,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement announcing the new map. “The net result was maps that were overly optimistic, lacked location-specific information, and subsequently glossed over gaps in coverage.”
But the FCC knows the new map may not be accurate so it’s asking consumers to chime in, too. The “preproduction draft” map, available online at broadbandmap.fcc.gov, allows consumers to challenge inaccuracies for their home by pressing the “Challenge Location” button.
Here’s the FCC video showing how to challenge the broadband status of an address:
“Individuals who see that the information on the maps does not match up with what they know from their lived experience will be able to submit challenges, or request corrections, directly through the map interface,” Rosenworcel added.
The FCC is accepting challenges through Jan. 13. But a big reason to get the data right is that there’s $42.5 billion at stake. Called BEAD, which is short for Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment, the federal program plans to invest money to build infrastructure and upgrade service in unserved or underserved areas with prioritization for fiber-based internet that offer gigabit speeds, or 1,000 megabits.
If regions aren’t correctly counted, they could miss out on attracting federal dollars to improve internet service, said Anna Read, senior officer at The Pew Charitable Trusts Broadband Access.
“Each state gets a $100 million baseline, but the remaining funding will be allocated based on a formula, which will be based on these new maps and the number of unserved locations in those states,” Read said.
Other states are also taking steps to improve their funding outlook. New York challenged 31,000 addresses. Pennsylvania is hosting webinars to encourage residents to challenge locations with incorrect internet data. Hawaii launched an effort this week appealing to residents to help crowdsource internet service to help the state receive up to $250 million more than its allocation, reported news site Honolulu Civil Beat.
“The accuracy of those maps and having an accurate representation of unserved locations is very important to the funding allocations,” Read said.
For the new map, the FCC asked internet providers to share the specifics of the areas they serve. But the map is limited to what internet providers shared about available service and “does not include factors like quality or reliability of service or pricing,” Reitter pointed out.
Some advocates for rural broadband said the maps are “quite inaccurate” and the FCC is relying on local governments to fix the issue.
“My house is reported to be served by a wireless company that told the FCC it can do 1,000/1,000 Mbps. When I looked at their website, they wanted to charge $100+ for 2 or 3 Mbps connections,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which has provided guidance to many Colorado communities on what it takes to build their own broadband services. “The FCC has not weeded out phantom services and I’ll be curious how many challenges it will take to fix this because the FCC offers no real penalties for ISPs that simply lie about their coverage.”
Even internet providers are puzzled.
“Generally, the FCC map is showing the state as well-covered, which most Coloradans know isn’t the reality. Part of this mismatch has to do with the way the 182-acre hexagon blocks are created,” said Stacie McDonald, a spokeswoman for Visionary Broadband, which offers fiber-based internet service in Gunnison and Kremmling and is adding service in Cañon City, Lake City, Marble, Pagosa Springs and Walden.
“For example, our employee has a 200 Mbps connection at his home, so their entire 182-acre hexagon is showing as offering 200 Mbps, which is not the case,” McDonald continued. “Along with ISPs, citizens can also report their coverage, which can assist Colorado in getting their full BEAD allocation, since it’s based on the number of unserved locations.”
Colorado is also targeting faster speeds for everyone in the state. The old FCC preference of 25 Mbps down and 3 up just isn’t good enough anymore, Reitter said, especially after students and workers stuck at home during COVID found themselves competing for bandwidth to sit through an online class or video conference.
Moving forward in Colorado, the unserved will include communities with download speeds below 100 megabits and 20 up. About 14% of the state is considered unserved or underserved at under 100/20 Mbps, and that includes urban areas like the Denver metropolis.
But Reitter said she needs to hear from the underserved Coloradans, who can share what’s actually happening at their home.
“While the FCC maps are an important resource, they only show reported broadband availability from ISPs who chose to provide their data,” she said. “(We) need help from the public to understand what is being advertised as being available to customers versus what they are actually receiving as far as speeds and service at their location.”