The feds have mapped broadband availability. Are they right about Virginia?

By: - January 11, 2023 12:02 am

The hamlet of Head Waters in Highland County was rated between “unserved” and “underserved” for high-speed internet access in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A new broadband map released by the federal government that tracks whether people have Internet access at their address likely has extensive errors, say Virginia experts — but the public can weigh in to help correct the problems.

“There are addresses being reported as served in the commonwealth that we determined are actually not served,” said Tamarah Holmes, director of the Virginia Office of Broadband in the Department of Housing and Community Development. 

On Jan. 13, Virginia expects to challenge tens to hundreds of thousands of locations, many of them in rural areas, that the Federal Communications Commission says have access to broadband but actually lack it. 

Officials aren’t the only ones who can provide feedback, however. For the first time, the FCC is allowing any member of the public to weigh in on the accuracy of its National Broadband Map by typing in their address, reviewing the information about Internet availability and submitting a challenge through the website if it’s incorrect.

Review your broadband availability

To access the FCC National Broadband Map, click here. Enter your address in the search bar, click “Search” and then review the information about type, technology, speed and providers that appears. 

Broadband availability information collected by the FCC for an office building in downtown Richmond.

If your information is not correct, click “Availability Challenge” and select the particular service that you believe is in error. After clicking “Select,” scroll down and fill in the form before clicking “Submit.”

“I think it is the first time in the history of the FCC’s mapping where anyone can challenge,” said Holmes. “With the old maps, we weren’t allowed to challenge as a state. Individuals had no say.”

“There are folks all over rural Virginia who know that the FCC broadband map isn’t always accurate,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, in an email to constituents this December. “Now is the time to make sure that (we) are using the best data available, so Virginia can get the investments to which it is entitled and achieve the goal of universal broadband access.” 

Addresses replace census blocks

One of the most critical differences between the new FCC map under review and prior versions is that the current map shows broadband access on the address level rather than by census block. 

“Basically what you had is if the provider said they offered service anywhere in a census block, they’d consider the census block served,” said Brandon Herndon, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology, which has been developing Virginia’s own broadband availability map with the state since 2010. 

New federal programs offer Virginia households a subsidy for affordable high-speed internet  

“Obviously this is not a good solution for ensuring everyone has broadband access,” he said.

That approach also made it harder for local and state officials to determine where resources should best be directed.

“We used to jokingly say that the reliability of the old FCC map was that if it said it was unserved, it was truly unserved, but if it said it was served, you don’t really know if it is or not,” said Holmes.

In 2021, Virginia began requiring broadband providers to submit updated information to the Department of Housing and Community Development with the specific locations they serve. With that information, the Office of Broadband revamped its map to show the percentage of residents in each census block that have Internet access, giving a more accurate picture of where service is available. 

“We’re years ahead of other states,” said Herndon.

Funding

Mapping what areas have broadband access isn’t just an intellectual exercise. The information is the most crucial factor in the federal government’s determination of how much money each state will get through the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. 

“This is the reason we’re doing everything,” said Herndon. 

By design, BEAD prioritizes unserved locations that either have limited or no Internet access. Those unserved locations are identified based on the FCC broadband map. 

“Inaccurate broadband deployment data in the National Broadband Map could affect the share of BEAD Program funding an eligible state or territory receives,” a December 2022 brief from the Congressional Research Service noted. 

“It’s hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Herndon. “That’s why this challenge process is so important.” 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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