New broadband map to help allocate federal funding

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

The maps the federal government has used to make those decisions in the past, by the government’s own admission, have been less accurate.

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

“You know, there are people sitting around right now crossing their fingers waiting for maps,” said Brian Whitacre, an economist at Oklahoma State University.

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It’s been an open secret that our existing broadband map is terrible, he said. It depends on the data from the Internet providers about which blocks of census they provide.

“The biggest problem with that was the manipulation of one person,” Whitacre said.

​Which means that if one house is 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 cover hundreds or even thousands of square miles.

“They may overestimate the coverage by a quarter or a third,” he said.

The new map will be based on more data, said Tyler Cooper, senior editor of BroadbandNow.

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

And you suddenly become victims of badly needed money.

“I’m going to reject that by saying, you know, I think it’s going to be a very bad plan,” he said.

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

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

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John said that means some of the neglected communities can remain neglected. New map or not.

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