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Lawmakers Call For Accurate Broadband Data

By Steven Allen Adams - for the Tyler Star News | Jun 2, 2021

CHARLESTON — Lawmakers at the state and congressional levels are working to make sure the next batch of broadband coverage maps accurately show West Virginia’s need for high-speed internet expansion, especially as the state is poised to receive funds to make it happen.

A report from the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) was sent to the Federal Communications Commission on May 6 alerting the commission to errors in the awarding of phase I of FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction.

The auction allocated $9.2 billion over a 10-year period to subsidize construction of high-speed gigabit internet in unserved rural areas across the U.S. Phase II of the auction, likely to take place later this year, will reward more funding for buildout of broadband in underserved parts of the country. Nine companies in West Virginia received $362.1 million.

The CCA report found that due to inaccurate broadband coverage maps used by the FCC to determine what areas of the nation are unserved and underserved, federal funding awarded through phase I of the auction went to parts of the U.S. that already have dependable access to high-speed internet.

“Pervasive errors in broadband data will soon send hundreds of millions of dollars of Federal broadband subsidies to areas of the country least in need of support,” wrote CCA General Counsel Alexi Maltas and Policy Counsel Alexandra Mays.

“Deficient mapping means that instead of supporting areas that lack service, the Commission’s RDOF program will subsidize broadband deployment in areas that obviously are served — including some of the nation’s wealthiest, most densely populated areas,” Maltas and Mays continued.

Some of the areas receiving unneeded RDOF funding include the popular Fisherman’s Wharf district of San Francisco, the inner loop central business district located in downtown Chicago, and parts of Silicon Valley in California and the campus of MIT in Massachusetts.

The CCA report estimated that between $115 million and $745 million in funding went to parts of the country that did not need broadband.

“This is all while so many areas in my state aren’t even eligible to apply for this funding because of the inaccurate maps. No state has been penalized by poor maps more than West Virginia,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in a letter sent to the FCC on Thursday.

The current broadband maps used by the FCC are based on reports from internet service providers – data that is often not confirmed. The Form 477 data only requires providers to give information on advertised maximum internet speeds instead of what the reality is. The reports rely on data from U.S. Census blocks and if only one home in a census block has service, the entire census block is considered served.

The broadband mapping issues have long been a focus for Manchin, who has been collecting internet speed tests from West Virginians for years, submitting them to the FCC to help them with mapping, since 2015 when the FCC at that time claimed that 99.9% of Americans had wireless coverage. Since then, Manchin has submitted more than 2,600 speed tests to the FCC.

In his letter Thursday, Manchin praised the FCC for creating a Broadband Data Task Force in March to make improvements to the broadband mapping issue. He also sent a new batch of speed tests.

“As you continue to work toward establishing a user-friendly process for people to submit this data directly to the FCC, I will continue to encourage West Virginians to remain an active part of the process and submit speed test data to my office which I will share with you and the Broadband Data Task Force to help inform your decision-making,” Manchin said.

Manchin said he asked Ajit Pai, the previous FCC chairman under former president Donald Trump, to delay phase I of the RDOF auction until more accurate maps could be used to determine where the unserved and underserved parts of the country were.

“Unfortunately, (Pai) failed to heed my warning, arguing that we didn’t need updated maps because the FCC knew with certainty the areas that were currently unserved,” Manchin said. “Sadly, what was billed as the single biggest step yet to close the digital divide, is looking more and more like a misstep.”

The West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council launched its own broadband map last year to track major broadband expansion projects, internet speeds, unserved and underserved parts of the state. House Bill 2002, passed during the 2021 legislative session, empowered the new Office of Broadband within the Department of Economic Development to provide broadband mapping services down to the street and location-level.

HB 2002 allows for mapping information to include data from state and federal agencies, industry-provided data, consumer data such as speed tests — provided to the Broadband Enhancement Council and the Office of Broadband.

“We want results on internet expansion. We know that bad maps lead to bad results,” said Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, the lead sponsor of HB 2002, the chairman of the House Technology and Infrastructure Committee, and an ex-officio member of the Broadband Enhancement Council.

“House Bill 2002 places guarantees in code that our mapping will come from real data submitted by real West Virginians — not simply the internet providers themselves,” Linville continued. “This will ensure that our maps are as accurate as possible, and that funding will be delivered to projects that will actually extend service. It also allows us to measure the success of our efforts. Without accurate maps, none of this is possible.”

On top of the $362.1 million in phase I RDOF monies, West Virginia will receive $138 million for broadband expansion through President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The state can also use part of the $1.355 billion it is receiving through the American Rescue Plan for infrastructure projects, such as broadband expansion.

Counties and cities are receiving a combined $679 million through the Biden plan that can also be used for broadband projects. Another $100 billion in broadband investment has come from various grants and loans through the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.