Which Version of the National Broadband Maps Should States Use for the Challenge Process?
By Justin Fazzari, Senior Broadband Strategist –
This is the first in a two-part series that analyzes the question, Which Version of the National Broadband Maps Should States Use for the Challenge Process? Click here to jump to Part 2.
If the term “Challenge Process” has become confusing, you’re right. It’s understandably confusing because when NTIA issued the final State “BEAD Challenge Process” policy notice in June, that notice created a third challenge process for states to focus on. So, let’s go through each of these challenge processes for clarity.
What are the FCC Fabric and BDC Challenge Processes?
The original two Challenge Processes (still ongoing) are the FCC CostQuest Fabric and FCC Broadband Data Collection (BDC) Availability Challenges. The Fabric Challenge allows states to submit location-specific modifications to the Fabric data for the FCC’s consideration. The goal of this process is to collaboratively develop with state stakeholders the most accurate map of all broadband serviceable locations. These modifications primarily involve the addition or removal of broadband serviceable locations in the FCC CostQuest Fabric. The second challenge process is the FCC BDC Availability Challenge, where states challenge the broadband service being reported by ISPs for specific locations on the map to more correctly categorize whether those locations are served, underserved or unserved. While many states are winding down their Fabric and BDC Challenges, these procedures remain open on a rolling basis. At AppGeo, a division of Sanborn, we are advising our state clients to continue to monitor changes to the Fabric and BDC data and to continue filing challenges. There will be downstream implications for BEAD monitoring and implementation as the map continues to evolve over time.
The New BEAD State Challenge Process
The BEAD Challenge Process requires each state to create a public-facing portal where nonprofits, units of local or tribal government, and ISPs may challenge the version of the National Broadband Map that the state has chosen to use for identifying locations to be funded through their BEAD program. The spirit of this effort is to allow states to increase the accuracy of the FCC BDC Availability data. As previously mentioned, the FCC Fabric challenge process is rolling, so there is the potential for new locations to be added or removed. If your state has more work to do here, it’s time to get moving.
After the June allocation announcement and publication of the updated BEAD Challenge Process Guidance, our team immediately started to hear questions from our state broadband clients. Two of those concerns are:
- Which version of the National Broadband Map should they choose for the State Challenge Process?
- When should they plan to initiate the State Challenge Process?
Fortunately, the NTIA has provided guidance but the answers to these critical questions are not necessarily obvious. In this blog, I will address the first question about which National Broadband Map version to use.
Researching this has been an interesting journey with some important implications for each state’s BEAD Program. States should ensure that they understand all the factors that can impact and inform the choice of the FCC National Broadband Map. Each state is in a slightly different position depending on how they approached the FCC Fabric and BDC Availability Challenges. Their decision will partially depend on which and how many challenges are still unresolved and what their success rate has been. Additionally, states will inevitably make different strategic decisions on how to develop and conduct their State Challenge Process.
What is the BEAD Initial and Final Proposal Timeline?
There are a lot of details in the BEAD NOFO and subsequent Challenge Process Guidance that explain the timelines surrounding the submission and approval of BEAD Initial Proposal Volume 1 & 2. Here are a few main points to keep in mind:
- NTIA’s announcement of BEAD allocation on June 26, 2023, set December 23, 2023 as the deadline for submission of the Initial Proposal Volume 1 & 2.
- States are encouraged to submit Volume 1 (defining their State Challenge Process) first, in order to get approval of their State Challenge Process, which we have been recommending.
- This will allow states the flexibility to begin their State Challenge Process as soon as Volume 2 has been submitted to NTIA.
- NTIA’s approval of the Initial Proposal starts the 365-day clock to submit the Final Proposal.
NTIA Guidelines for Choosing Which National Broadband Map Version to Use for the Initial Proposal and Challenge Process
For the Initial Proposal, states are required to use the “most recently published National Broadband Maps as of the date of submission of the Initial Proposal.” Once the Initial Proposal is approved, states will decide when to initiate their State Challenge Process.
NTIA encourages using the most recent version of the National Broadband Map before initiating the State Challenge Process. NTIA provides extra emphasis for using the most recent version if more than 60 days have passed since the Initial Proposal approval. If states are following NTIA’s Model Challenge Process, there are some additional clarifications, but these align closely with what has been provided here. States have the option to update their post-challenge data to reflect updates to the National Broadband Map that occur after conclusion of the challenge process. This may allow states to get more fabric locations added after the State Challenge Process.
Waiting for Future Releases of the National Broadband Map May Improve State Data
We have been supporting states by looking at issues such as the likelihood that changes resulting from challenges to the BDC Availability data are significant and large enough that states should wait for future releases. The key is to evaluate whether a state is having success through the BDC Challenge process, how many outstanding challenges there are and expectations about how many challenges will ultimately be accepted. States must weigh accepting the current FCC map vs. waiting for future semi-annual updates that may be more accurate as a result of ongoing fabric and broadband availability updates. This is because additional locations (Fabric data) cannot be added through the State Challenge Process. The only way to add locations is via the FCC Fabric Challenge Process. Changes in broadband availability data can be challenged through both the FCC BDC Challenge process and the State Challenge Process. States can rely on NTIA guidance and their own unique requirements to develop a State Challenge Process that they believe will most improve their availability data.
It should be noted that states are not necessarily locked into using the State Challenge version of the map for BEAD implementation. States are able to update their post-challenge data to reflect the most recent National Broadband map after the conclusion of the State Challenge Process.
Unintended Consequences of Waiting for Future National Broadband Map Releases
Waiting for changes to the BDC availability data could have unintended consequences such as ISPs adding new data that could significantly decrease the number of unserved and underserved locations. We saw this working with one of our state partners when a significant number of locations were recategorized as served under the FCC “LBR” (licensed by rule, a subcategory of fixed wireless broadband) category.
A Comprehensive, Data Driven, Strategic Approach Will Help States Evaluate the Choice of National Broadband Map Versions for their State Challenge Process
We have been analyzing many scenarios to assist with states’ decision making and are engaging in complex geospatial analytics and mapping exercises to support states making the best decision possible for their unique situation. We are drilling into the data to analyze whether the state’s data is changing, how much it is changing and whether it is improving from the state’s perspective. We are comparing variances between FCC data releases to quantify this and then using that knowledge to develop prediction models for the next version of the FCC BSL Fabric and BDC Service Availability. We are examining possibilities like the new biannual FCC map reducing unserved or underserved areas through increased reporting from providers that do not offer future proof broadband solutions, resulting in a real impact on a state’s implementation plans. We have seen through BDC Availability reporting that ISPs without this futureproof technology can cause massive swings in state funding allocations. Luckily, NTIA provides guidance for how states can strategically address this issue within their State Challenge Process.
Once a state has strategically thought through which version of the National Broadband Map to use, the question becomes, what is the optimal timing to initiate their State Challenge Process? There are a set of strategic issues that I explore in my next blog, “When Should States Initiate the State Challenge Process?”.