The hamlet of Head Waters in Highland County is rated between "unserved" and "underserved" for high-speed internet access, but officials say current data doesn't allow them to say with certainty where broadband is available and where it isn't because ISPs won't release the information. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam has set a goal of bringing universal broadband coverage to the state within 10 years.

A not-so-minor hiccup: State officials say they don’t know for sure where people currently have access to coverage and where they don’t because the big internet service providers won’t tell them, calling it proprietary information.

“If you’re building infrastructure, you need to know where you’re doing it,” says Northam’s broadband czar, Evan Feinman. “But no regulatory body requires them to disclose it and they simply decline.”

As a result, the state can only estimate the number of households and businesses without coverage — a figure they put at about 660,000.

38,000 more households could be covered this year

Feinman says that isn’t going to stop Virginia from beginning to roll out additional grant funding this summer to help defray the capital costs of expanding broadband networks, but he said it complicates the work.

Northam requested $50 million this year to begin the expansion project, which his administration pitches as critical given the educational and economic development benefits attributed to access to broadband. The legislature, citing uncertainty about the plan, cut that to $19 million.

Even with the reduction, it still represents a substantial increase over the $4 million provided last year and is enough to bring broadband coverage to an additional 38,000 households through public-private partnerships between ISPs, local governments and the state.

To protect against funding projects in areas that are already covered, it will be up to existing ISPs to review the proposals and challenge any in areas where they’re already serving people.

The General Assembly also passed legislation aimed at allowing ISPs to piggy back of infrastructure work underway by Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, which are laying fiber optic cables for new smart meter systems.

Federal coverage maps ‘laughable’

While officials are frustrated, a spokeswoman for Comcast, Aimee Metrick, said the company’s “detailed service area maps are highly proprietary and competitively sensitive.” She noted the state has access to mandated coverage reports issued twice yearly to the Federal Communications Commission. (Verizon, the state’s other major provider, did not respond to a message seeking comment.)

But Feinman says those maps aren’t particularly useful because providers aren’t required to provide the information on a house-by-house basis.

“Which is how we get things like maps that show all of Amelia and all of Hanover County having broadband coverage,” Feinman said. “That’s laughable. It’s simply not the case.”

He isn’t the only person who feels that way.

Senate hearing today

The U.S. Senate’s Commerce Committee is scheduled to take up the issue in a hearing today. Ahead of that meeting, Microsoft issued a statement criticizing the FCC’s coverage maps and estimates, saying they vastly overstate how many people have access to broadband.

The software giant says its own study based on the download speeds of their ubiquitous software updates found 163 million people are not getting broadband speeds, while the FCC estimates only 25 million people lack access to high-speed internet.

“Getting these numbers right is vitally important,” wrote the company’s chief data analytics officer, John Kahan, in a blog post Tuesday. “This data is used by federal, state and local agencies to decide where to target public funds dedicated to closing this broadband gap. That means millions of Americans already lacking access to broadband have been made invisible, substantially decreasing the likelihood of additional broadband funding or much needed broadband service.”

Microsoft is encouraging the FCC to force ISPs to provide more detailed reports. That’s something Virginia would also like to see, but officials are doubtful they’ll see any action on the federal level.

A low-tech workaround

Instead, the state is turning to a low-tech solution to produce better maps on its own, asking local government leaders to fill in the gaps by telling them where they think residents have coverage and where they don’t. They then plan to overlay that on data reported by telecoms and data provided by Microsoft.

“It will be the best map in the country, but it will still be inadequate,” Feinman said. “We know that. But until or unless the telecoms will just give us their maps, it’s the best we can do.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned, a Lexington native, has a decade’s worth of experience in journalism, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He also has the awards to show for it, including taking a pair of first-place honors at the Virginia Press Association awards earlier this year for investigative reporting and feature writing. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass.