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LUFKIN – More than $42 billion in federal funding for high-speed internet depends on a map that state and local leaders say is “clearly” flawed.
Released last month, the map offers household-level information on who lacks access to reliable, high-speed internet. Now, with the deadline to dispute the map’s accuracy fast approaching, state Comptroller Glenn Hegar has asked the federal government for more time.
The Federal Communications Commission released the initial version of the map on November 18 and gave local officials until January 13, 2023 to challenge its accuracy. The map is available online and allows anyone to see location-by-location information about internet speeds and availability, as reported by internet service providers. Federal funding will be distributed based on which areas have the highest need according to the broadband map.
These dollars will help Texas strengthen broadband access, especially in rural areas that have been underserved. Texas has lagged behind other states when it comes to broadband, and local officials, business leaders and residents say the lack of access has held their regions back and made it difficult to compete in the 21st century economy.
In a Monday letter to the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Hegar — who oversees the state’s broadband development office — asked the federal government to delay the deadline to challenge the broadband map by 60 days and delay the planned release of the final one. map of another 60 days, until July 14 of the next year.
“This is a clearly flawed map,” Hegar said in a statement. “Some of the responsibility lies with the service providers who exaggerate the coverage they provide in their territories. This practice has become so routine that we often don’t notice it, but it will significantly limit competition as well as our ability to accurately allocate resources to those Texans whose access is inadequate.”
An NTIA spokesperson said they received Hegar’s letter and are reviewing it.
“NTIA is committed to balancing the urgency of the moment with the need for accurate maps for funding allocation,” the spokesperson said.
In 2021, Congress allocated a historic $65 billion to expand high-speed Internet access through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Of that funding, $42.45 billion will be available as a grant to states and territories to help expand access to high-speed internet.
According to the US Census Bureau, 2.8 million Texas households lack broadband access. A disproportionate number of these are in rural areas, where low population density discourages private companies from setting up broadband infrastructure.
It’s precisely those communities that some advocates say are misrepresented on the broadband map.
Dustin Fawcett, Ector County judge-elect, said the map appears to be accurate for Odessa, the county seat with a population of 112,483, but appears to overstate broadband access in remote, less-populated areas.
“The reality of what the service providers are telling us and the reality on the ground don’t match up,” Fawcett said. “The map may say you have the ability to access the internet, but it’s not at the speeds advertised, and it’s not at a price tag that’s doable.”
Fawcett said he has spoken with several Ector County residents whose broadband speeds are significantly slower than what is represented on the maps. Others, he said, may have access to the internet but at unaffordable prices, sometimes up to $300 a month.
Some local leaders said the process for contesting the accuracy of the maps is unclear and inaccessible.
Individuals can submit challenges directly through the map interface. But accessing the map interface requires internet access, leaving households without access unable to pose a challenge.
“How can I go online to challenge the map if I don’t have access to the map?” said Lonnie Hunt, executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments and a longtime advocate for rural internet infrastructure. “Again, it’s kind of an example where the people who need it the most are the least equipped to challenge it.”
Hunt said he’s glad Hegar asked the federal government for more time to challenge the maps, which he believes are inaccurate. He said he would use that time to try to file a “grand challenge,” a process by which local governments can contest multiple locations at once.
Hunt said he discussed this possibility with engineering, which could help the region put together the biggest challenge.
“The process to challenge the maps is not simple or easy, and our local communities just don’t have the capacity to take that on,” Hunt said. “We’re trying to gather resources to provide a challenge, but we need more time and, frankly, we need the state to take the lead.”
The state’s Broadband Development Office, which is managed by the comptroller, was created by the Texas Legislature in 2021.