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FCC Stumbles As It Tries to Increase Access to Broadband

Technology Policy Brief #74 | By: Mindy Spatt | November 30, 2022

Header photo taken from: Associated Press

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FCC National Broadband Map. On November 18, the Federal Communications Commission released an updated map detailing broadband availability nationwide, which will be used to allocate billions in federal funds to expand access to affordable high-speed internet.

Image taken from: FCC / AEI (.org)

Will $65 billion in Infrastructure funds finally bridge the digital divide and connect the 19 million Americans who  still lack access to high-speed internet?  The FCC’s First Step Appears to be a Misstep.

The Federal Communications Commission’s long-awaited broadband availability map was released on Nov. 18 and was immediately met with a storm of criticism.  The map will be used to determine where $42 billion from the Infrastructure investment and Jobs Act will be spent.  Hence states , municipalities, territories and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have a huge stake in the map’s accuracy, which was in question even before it was released.

Key areas of contention include  the numbers of unserved areas and which areas will be the most expensive to serve.  The FCC map will also impact who will receive grant funding through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Act, but for that program states may also submit their own maps and data.

According to the nonprofit advocacy organization Free Press, “State broadband offices, local communities, and community based organizations have noted a number of inaccuracies in the new broadband maps.”

Criticisms have centered on missing locations, inadequate data about actual vs. advertised speed and about affordability.  Advocates also claim the locations of homes and businesses should be more granular.   Also problematic is the very short timeline for challenging the map, which ends Jan. 13.  The process of amassing this data is complicated and difficult, and sates that lack expertise could find themselves left behind.

According to Free Press, states, municipalities and territories “are well positioned to know what broadband serviceable locations exist in their communities, and where broadband is and isn’t available, because they are members of those communities, with an overarching view of what occurs there. Although eager to challenge those inaccuracies, many expressed confusion over the process.  In an ex parte filing Free Press “urges the Commission to offer clarifying guidance.”

The federal government has already spent about  $85 billion on closing the digital divide, yet the goal of universal access remains elusive.  The FCC’s map focuses on availability, which doesn’t always translate into access.  

Just because high speed internet is available in an area doesn’t mean the residents of that area can afford it or have the equipment necessary to access it.  While about 95% of Americans live in areas where high speed internet is  available, less than 87% of households have access.  An estimated half of those households report that the reason is affordability. 

To address that problem, some BEAD funding will go to the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, which subsidizes broadband service for eligible households—defined as those that suffered income loss during the pandemic or meet other need-based criteria, such as eligibility for school lunch programs. This program is being renamed the Low-Income Broadband Benefit and the subsidy will be provided at a lower rate, down to $30 from an original $50 per month. 

Of course, $30 a month is still out of reach for many low income households.  In order to quality for BEAD funding, states must submit a Five-Year Action Plan that contains a state Digital Equity Plan, which in turn must in turn include a middle-class affordability plan and a low-cost broadband service option.

The Act does not define exactly what each of these should look like, but. the state must consult with the Dept. of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration before submitting a final draft. 

Universal access is achievable. The US currently ranks 26th in the world for broadband access, behind Kuwait, New Zealand and Aruba among others. And we’ve done little to regulate Internet Service Providers or require robust low-income programs.  It remains to be seen whether throwing money at the problem- or, possibly, at the wrong places- will actually conquer the digital divide.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

New Broadband Map Brings Challenges for Local Government, Carl Smith, Governining.com, Nov. 23, 2022.  https://www.governing.com/now/fccs-new-broadband-map-brings-challenges-for-local-government

What Is the FCC’s New Broadband Map and Why Does it Matter?  Jake Varn and Lily Gong,: The Pew Charitable Trusts 11/25/22.   https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2022/11/18/what-is-the-fccs-new-broadband-map-and-why-does-it-matter

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