New broadband map to help allocate federal funding

On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission will unveil a new national map of broadband Internet service. Or at least a draft of one. It’s been one year this week since President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill that, among other things, put more than $40 billion toward our nation’s stubborn broadband equity problem.

The maps that the federal government used to make those determinations in the past were, by the government’s own admission, not very accurate.

If you’ve spent time this week waiting for Taylor Swift’s tickets to drop, then you know how people who work on broadband equity feel.

“You know, there are people kind of sitting around right now drumming their fingers in front of the maps,” said Brian Whitacre, an economist at Oklahoma State University.

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It was an open secret that our existing broadband map was pretty bad, he said. It depends on data from internet providers about which census blocks they serve.

“The main problem with that was the one-serve, all-serve fallacy,” Whitacre said.

This means that if one household was connected, on the map the whole block was colored green.

Whitacre said that works well in cities. But not so much in rural areas, where a census block can encompass hundreds or even thousands of square miles.

“They could overestimate coverage by half or a third,” he said.

The new map will be based on more granular data, said Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow.

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“So tomorrow, whenever this new data set comes out, we’re going to see a lot of these areas suddenly change to red,” Cooper said.

And suddenly become targets for much-needed funding.

“I’ll caveat that by saying, you know, I think it’s going to be a very messy process,” he said.

That’s because anyone can challenge the broadband availability data on which the new map is based – a process that will be hosted on the internet.

“Right, communities that don’t have reliable Internet access are going to have a hard time,” said EJ John, a policy and research analyst at the American Indian Policy Institute. “You need information. And if you can’t go to your community and go door to door and do your own survey, then it’s going to be really hard to present a good challenge.”

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John said that means some of the most underserved communities could remain underserved. New map or not.

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