TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Tompkins County has filed a challenge against the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) draft maps depicting gaps in broadband access throughout the county. The FCC has an inaccurate read on around 1,200 addresses, which its maps say have access to broadband when they don’t, according to county officials.
What’s at risk? “The real stakes here are funding. It’s in the billions of dollars,” said Nick Helmholdt, a principal planner with the county who was at the lead of filing the challenge against the accuracy of the new maps, which will form the basis of how a $42.5 billion Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) federal program is distributed.
The maps in question were a long-in-the-works revamp of the infamously inaccurate broadband maps that the FCC once used. The fresh maps were meant to help turn the page on the nationwide inequity of broadband access that affects rural areas of the country particularly hard. But, with their release in November 2022, the new maps demonstrated underwhelming improvements in some areas.
Tompkins County is part of a national wave of states and local governments individually filing challenges against the accuracy of the new maps. It’s a process that was built into the rollout of the maps by the FCC, which will be comparing the data presented by challengers against responses from ISPs — and that has attracted some controversy.
ISPs have historically overstated the availability and quality of their service to the FCC, which relies on the private companies to disclose the areas and speeds at which they provide internet. The FCC’s new maps also relied heavily on data from ISPs, and by many accounts repeat the errors of the commission’s previous maps.
The short window for challenging the findings of the broadband maps closed on Jan. 13. The complex process of submitting a challenge has led some to lobby the FCC to extend the timeline to submit challenges, their argument being that under-resourced local governments needed more than a little over two months to accomplish the undertaking.
Katie Borgella, the Tompkins County Commissioner of Planning and Sustainability, told a committee of county legislators on Monday that the extra muscle from the consultant team they worked with was highly important.
Filing the challenge, Borgella said, “was very complicated, a very short turnaround, and things had to be filed just so to have it accepted.”
With the assistance of ECC Technologies, a Pittsfield, N.Y.-based consulting firm focused on broadband and technology, the county determined that 103 “specific locations” are inaccurately listed as being served by different ISPs, when in reality they have no access to broadband.
By the FCC’s technical definition, “specific locations,” do not always correspond with address points, explains Helmholdt. They are an area and location that corresponds with a numerical ID code. But, Helmholdt added that based on the most data compiled by the county and their consultants, there are 1,200 addresses that do not have broadband service in Tompkins County, which are concentrated in its southern portion. The finding, said Helmholdt, was “not a surprise.”
The county and other challengers will have to play wait-and-see as the FCC processes their input against any discrepancy that ISPs may raise.
Helmholdt said, “A discrepancy […] basically is going to land in the FCC’s court to decide who’s got a better case.”
Previous studies commissioned by the county and anecdotes have demonstrated that the areas in the Towns of Newfield, Caroline, and Danby have the highest concentration of gaps broadband access. The data that county and ECC used to support their challenge to the FCC stems from those local studies, as well as data supplied by the New York State Department of Public Service, said Helmholdt. But it’s yet to be seen whether these areas will see broadband access brought in through the help of federal funds.
“They are not obligated to accept our challenge,” Helmholdt said of the FCC. “And they’re not obligated to make a change to the map based on what we’ve said.”