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Virginia Says Broadband Coverage Map Is Unrealistic

Despite the Federal Communications Commission’s map of available consumer broadband at 100 percent across the state, the state’s broadband office argues that rural areas are still left out, challenging 2 million addresses.

(TNS) — The Federal Communication Commission’s map of available consumer broadband shows 100 percent coverage for the state of Virginia, and near total mobile coverage in areas other than national forests.

But the Virginia Office of Broadband says rural parts of the state, including the outer reaches of Hampton Roads, still lack access to high-speed internet. Last month, the agency challenged nearly 2 million addresses in Virginia that the federal government said receive broadband coverage — but actually don’t have reliable coverage, or it’s cost prohibitive.

The challenge is part of a process to revise and refine maps showing where high-speed internet access is available across the United States.

The FCC released a draft map in June 2022 with data from internet service providers and solicited challenges from states. Revising the FCC’s map with local data is important because it will help determine how funds are allocated under the Broadband, Equity and Deployment (BEAD) program, a federal initiative to expand internet access.

“Each state is eligible for a minimum of $100 million,” said Tamarah Holmes, director of the Virginia Office of Broadband, which is a division of the Department of Housing and Community Development. “The data on the map is the basis for the remainder of the state’s BEAD allocation.”

Challenging Federal Broadband Maps

The near 2 million addresses challenged in Virginia came from three categories, according to the DHCD.

Addresses where broadband providers had reported connectivity to the FCC but not the state of Virginia went into the challenge. The discrepancy was tracked using data from the FCC’s map and Virginia’s broadband connectivity map, the Commonwealth Connection. Through that method, the DHCD identified 248,000 addresses.

The DHCD reported an additional 113,000 locations on the FCC map that were more than 350 feet from the road, which is the average distance wireline internet service providers will extend service at no extra cost.

Also part of the challenge were 1.6 million addresses reported as served by cell providers at broadband speed. Because those locations were not reported as served by fixed wireless broadband technology, they went into the challenge as well.

Efforts to improve broadband availability across the United States have been underway for years, but the need for consistent high-speed connections skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic when workers were sent home and schools closed.

As part of that effort, the FCC sought to revamp its maps to better reflect access to high-speed internet — which it defines as a minimum 25 megabit per second download speed and 3 megabit per second upload speed. (The DHCD uses a faster speed threshold, defining broadband as at least 100 mbps download speed and 20 mbps upload speed.) The commission’s previous maps showed coverage by the census block — that is, if just one address in a block was served, the map would show coverage in the entire block. The latest maps take into consideration data reported by internet service providers and provide cities, states and individuals a way to file challenges to better reflect the reality on the ground.

States had to submit bulk challenges by Jan. 13. But the portal is still open for individuals to submit challenges and can be accessed on the FCC’s website.

Individuals can submit challenges based on a number of factors that take into account the quality and type of internet available ― not just whether it’s there or not. For example, individuals can challenge availability if a provider fails to schedule a service installation within 10 days, if the provider requested more than the standard installation fee, or if technology or broadband speeds reported to be available in the area are not available.

Areas Lacking Coverage

Virginia has been collecting its own data to supplement the overly optimistic assessments by the FCC.

“Building our state map a year before the federal government was going to be issuing their map really prepared us,” Holmes said. The DHCD’s map, the Commonwealth Connection, launched in April 2021. Holmes said the methodology used for building the map supplied data for the state’s challenge.

Furthermore, the Commonwealth Connection is more up-to-date than the current FCC map, which is based on data from June. The DHCD’s most recent data collection was in December, Holmes said.

The Virginia map shows good coverage overall in population-dense areas, where private providers have larger customer bases and more incentive to provide quality internet. In the Hampton Roads area, coverage begins to disappear near the North Carolina border, west of Chesapeake and south of Suffolk. This area includes the Great Dismal Swamp, but places where people live and work also lack reliable broadband coverage. Further out, coverage disappears to the south and west of Franklin.

“The challenges for us are primarily in rural Virginia,” Holmes said. “The purpose of the map is for local governments and communities to identify areas that are not served.”

Holmes said the map can also help identify communities eligible for Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) grants, designed to increase access to broadband.

Gloucester County, in northern Hampton Roads on the Middle Peninsula, has used a grant to fund a project connecting residents to wireless broadband via a communications tower.

“Before this got started, really about 14 percent of the county did not have access to broadband,” said Quinton Sheppard, a spokesperson for Gloucester County. “That impacts us, as far as not only economic development opportunities, but it really hit home when so many of us were working from home during the pandemic, when so many children were trying to e-learn during the pandemic.”

Now, the county is making progress connecting residents who are completely without access to broadband, mainly in the northern, more rural part of the county. Later stages will connect more homes and business to three new towers that will be constructed.

Elsewhere in the region, cities have joined forces to fund and develop an ultrafast fiber connectivity ring that is aimed at bringing faster and more reliable internet and data services to Hampton Roads.

Equity Through Access, Adoption and Affordability

Holmes uses a metaphor of a three-legged stool to describe what goes into achieving broadband equity: access, adoption and affordability.

“Access first has to be addressed with infrastructure,” Holmes said. This means building out things like communications towers or making sure there are reliable broadband technologies available in areas across the state.

Adoption has to do with how people and communities use internet in their daily lives.

“The pandemic showed how a lot of people weren’t prepared to do remote learning,” Holmes said. Internet became essential not just for school or work, Holmes said, but also things like telehealth appointments and access to information.

Broadband access also has implications for expanding e-commerce, supporting new business creation and economic development for communities, Holmes said.

The third leg is affordability.

“The VATI program was created to supplement the costs for the private sector to build out to areas that are underserved,” Holmes said. “We’re making broadband more affordable with even just our efforts and our investment around infrastructure.”

©2023 The Virginian-Pilot. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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