Are WISPs ‘gaming’ the FCC maps for a BEAD advantage?

  • Consultant Doug Dawson accuses WISPs of gaming the FCC broadband map

  • If an area is covered with 100/20 Mbps broadband it could be considered ineligible for BEAD funds

  • And Dawson says WISPs are purposely misrepresenting their speeds on the FCC map

If incumbent broadband providers somehow gamed the FCC’s broadband map to prevent new providers from winning Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funds, it would be pretty egregious, but that’s exactly what’s happening, according to CCG Consulting President Doug Dawson.

He said the FCC allows internet service providers (ISPs) to report their advertised speeds in any given location, without having to prove that they can deliver those speeds. If a location on the FCC map shows that broadband with speeds of 100/20 Mbps is available, then that area is blocked from being eligible for BEAD grants.

Dawson says ISPs, and in particular wireless internet service providers (WISPs), have figured this out, and now they’re gaming the map to prevent new competitors in their footprints.

Fiber Broadband Association President and CEO Gary Bolton agrees that the FCC’s rules, allowing ISPs to report advertised speeds, have been a problem, and some providers have been “aggressive” on their marketing claims.

Bolton’s had his own personal experience with the map.

He owns a lake cottage in the southeast, and his broadband service from Brightspeed delivers about 650 Kbps. But he said the FCC map showed six other providers, claiming they could offer all kinds of higher-speed broadband to his cottage, from 5G to fixed line to fixed wireless access (FWA). Since the FCC allows consumers to submit challenges, Bolton decided to go for it.

The process turned out to be cumbersome because he had to reach out to the other providers for service — and when they responded that they were unable to provide service, he had to take screenshots of their replies and submit them to the FCC.

Wishy-washy WISPs 

When the FCC first established its new broadband map a couple of years ago, it required wireless and FWA providers to show how far their antennas reached, and they were required to get a licensed professional engineer (PE) to corroborate their reporting. But there was an outcry from providers who said the PE requirement was too cumbersome, and the FCC waived the PE requirement until March 2025.

“The FCC is the culprit, they got rid of the rules,” said Dawson.

Stephen Coran, a telecom lawyer with Lerman Senter, which represents WISPs, said it’s not just WISPs who don’t have to get a PE certification, it’s any service provider, whether fixed or wireless.

Bolton said it’s easy to measure a fiber provider’s service, but far more ambiguous with wireless, which can vary based on whether there is line-of-sight to the nearest tower that can be affected by things such as the weather and foliage. WISP coverage can also be affected by how many subscribers are being served in a given area.

“On wireless, providers will put a big circle around their antennas and say, ‘we serve all these areas,’ when they really don’t,” said Bolton. “It is in a service provider’s best interest to really stretch the limits of what they serve to prevent others from building in that area.”

When asked about WISPs stretching those limits, Coran said, "Is it true that all WISPs are overstating? Categorically, that’s not true. But some do better than others.”

Samuel Kornstein, managing director at the consulting firm Cartesian, concurred, telling Fierce, “All ISPs have an incentive to some extent to overstate coverage.” But he added that ISPs also keep each other’s reporting in check to a certain extent.

Dawson said the most egregious misrepresentations are happening in the middle of the country, from Texas to the Canadian border and from Indiana to the Rocky Mountains. These areas feature a lot of large open spaces covered by WISPs.

Bolton said that less populous states west of the Mississippi have larger land masses with sparser populations, so their BEAD money won’t go as far. “That’s the areas where you will see fixed wireless come more into play,” he said.

The BEAD challenge process

The FCC has been accepting challenges to its broadband map since November 2022. But the BEAD challenge process asks county governments and non-profits, such as libraries, to chime in with any challenges. The BEAD challenge process determines whether a particular location is eligible for grant funds. If an area seems to be covered by 100/20 Mbps service, then companies looking to build broadband may pass over those areas. So it's important that the maps be accurate.

So far, the BEAD challenges that are happening have not received a lot of input.

Dawson said many county governments “have no idea what’s going on.” Also, the level of competence at state broadband offices varies. Many are too understaffed to get the word out to county governments about challenging the maps.

But fortunately, there appears to be some leeway for states to ultimately decide which areas are eligible for BEAD.

Dawson said that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which manages BEAD, has held lots of conversations with state broadband officers and has told them, informally, that they can disregard questionable data such as large areas covered by WISPs.

Bolton agreed that states are using various tools, not just the FCC’s map, to determine eligible locations. But in terms of malicious gamesmanship of the maps, he said, “It’s a big disservice to subscribers. You end up leaving people behind.”