Local Governments Prepare for Broadband Expansion
Enacted in 2021, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) continues to bring federal funding to local communities. Among some of the more highly anticipated opportunities is funding related to the expansion of high-speed Internet service (broadband).
Under the BIL, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will likely allocate $42.45 billion in Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funds to states in June 2023, to be dispersed depending on the number of un- or underserved locations in each state.
In preparation, local governments have been working to gather information on broadband availability within their jurisdiction, engaging local partners to develop expansion plans, and actively monitoring and challenging Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maps that purport to show where fast, reliable broadband services are available. This blog will look at these efforts while another will cover state and national funding for broadband expansion.
Building Partnerships to Expand Broadband
Formed in 2019 (see RCW 43.330.532), the Washington State Broadband Office (WSBO) was tasked with promoting access and improving download/upload speed for state residences, businesses, and communities. In 2020, it surveyed roughly 32,000 web users, finding that about 64% of households reported download speeds of below 25 megabits per second — the minimum the FCC considers broadband and far lower than 100 megabits per second as required in SB 5715, which was passed in 2022.
WSBO has been working in collaboration with Washington’s Public Works Board (PWB) and the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) to offer grants to local entities for broadband planning and deployment. This fall, the WSBO began partnering with Washington State University (WSU) Extension to offer technical assistance in helping Washington communities build grassroots Broadband Action Teams (BAT)
The function of a BAT is to lead the effort in planning for equitable broadband expansion in their communities. Teams meet regularly to discuss opportunities and promote awareness of, access to, and adoption of broadband. BATs help identify gaps then collaborate with providers and funders to target deployment to these locations. BAT members can include elected officials, Internet service providers (ISPs), libraries, medical institutions, schools and universities, Tribal organizations, emergency management professionals, workforce/ economic development organizations, fire districts, and state and/or federal legislators.
The WSBO maintains information on BATs operating across the state, but here are snapshots of two; one in Snohomish County and the other in Jefferson County.
In March 2021, the Snohomish County BAT held its inaugural meeting with a goal to expand broadband access to all residents and businesses. Its formation was spearheaded by the Snohomish County executive and county councilmembers, who then brought on businesses, school districts, healthcare organizations, Port of Everett, Snohomish County public utility district (PUD), ISPs, fire districts, WSU Extension, state elected officials, and county-based cities and towns (Darrington, Stanwood, Index, Gold Bar)
One of its first tasks was coordinating Broadband Access Week to expand public awareness and increase local participation the WSBO’s 2021 broadband access and speed survey. The county council allocated $5 million of the county’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds toward broadband expansion efforts. Using some of this funding, the county recently launched a study to identify gaps in broadband access for residents. The team has already identified seven underserved zones in the county and is working on developing potential projects for grant applications.
In January 2022, Snohomish County was awarded $16.7 million by the WSBO to expand broadband along the SR-530 corridor. The Snohomish County-Ziply Fiber SR530 Project will construct a network extending broadband access to approximately 5,598 sites in Arlington, Trafton, Cicero, Oso, Rowan, Hazel, Whitehorse, and Darrington.
The Jefferson BAT includes leaders and elected officials from Jefferson County, City of Port Townsend, the county PUD (which plans to offer public retail broadband service), Port of Port Townsend, WSU Extension, the Jefferson Economic Development Council, and a cross-section of members from education, healthcare, small businesses, and local residents.
In December 2021, the PWB awarded $1,096,046 to the Jefferson County PUD for its Discovery Bay East Fiber Project, which is bringing fiber optic cable to 70 homes near SR-20. The PUD then received two additional awards in 2022: The PWB awarded it $1.8 million and the WSBO awarded it $9.7 million. These funds will help the PUD connect 2,600 homes in Gardiner, Quilcene, Cape George, Discovery Bay, and Marrowstone Island.
What Is the FCC’s National Broadband Map and Why Is It Important?
On November 18, the FCC released a pre-production draft of its new, interactive National Broadband Map, which shows all where fixed broadband Internet services (i.e., fiber, cable, DSL, satellite) are or can be installed, as well as where consumers should be able to connect to mobile 3G, 4G, and 5G networks.
The map is composed of two parts. The first is data on fixed and mobile Internet services availability, which was submitted by ISPs and reflects services available as of June 30, 2022. The Broadband Serviceable Location (BSL) Fabric is what creates the interactive map. It is a dataset of all locations where fixed broadband is or could be installed and was built on many integrated data sources including address records, tax assessment records, imagery and building footprints, U.S. Census data, land use records, parcel boundaries, geospatial road and street information, and more.
The FCC’s previous attempts to track broadband availability showed only census block-level data, broadly overstating who had service. While the new maps are more granular in the detail, national organizations have already expressed concerns about the FCC’s reliance on ISP service data, but also about the accuracy of the BSL Fabric.
Why is this important? The BIL requires the FCC map be used as a baseline for BEAD grant program funding, since it is meant to target unserved and underserved areas. WSBO noted that under BEAD, Washington could get up to $900 million in aid if the FCC maps accurately reflected service gaps, but if un/underserved locations aren’t properly identified, the state may get less funding.
How to submit challenges to the map
The FCC created a process for states, local governments, third parties, and even the public to challenge BSL Fabric and service availability data. Challengers may dispute:
- The availability of fixed broadband service at a particular location. This includes whether a connection could be installed, or the network technology and maximum advertised download and upload speed reported by a provider is accurate.
- The availability of mobile broadband service using speed test data. Individuals must use the FCC Speed Test app but local governments may collect and submit bulk speed test data through their own software/hardware.
- The accuracy of the BSL Fabric. State, local, and Tribal governments, and other entities may submit bulk location challenges to the fabric and individuals can file a challenge directly through the map interface.
Local governments have been able to submit bulk location challenges since September. If your agency has not responded or is unsure how to start, the webinar recording, What to know about the FCC’s new mapping and data collection process, is worth a view. While the full recording is slightly over an hour long, at around the 16-minute mark, it takes viewers through a step-by-step process on how state and local governments can register and file a challenge to BSL Fabric and availability data, from creating an account to navigating the FCC’s portal and avoiding common pitfalls. Additionally, both the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties offer resources for local governments and the FCC maintains a Help Center with links specific for making bulk challenges.
The FCC opened the challenge process up to individual consumers in November. The FCC offers helpful links specific to consumers, and this video shows how individuals can submit an availability challenge. The WSBO also has a helpful webpage for navigating the process. Individuals who prefer to avoid the FCC portal can submit challenges through a portal run by WSU Extension, which will then use multiple reports to submit bulk challenges.
All challenges must be filed no later than January 13, 2023, whether these originate from individuals or local governments. Because of the tight turnaround some local governments are encouraging residents to review the FCC map, such as Island County recently did in the Whidbey News Times or Kittitas County did in a flyer.
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