Conexon exec flags impending BEAD mapping ‘train wreck’

Conexon Partner Jonathan Chambers warned the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) highly touted broadband mapping effort is headed for disaster and urged government officials to course correct before it’s too late. He also flagged potential issues with state-level mapping efforts which he said could slow or bias the funding allocation process for Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program support.

According to Chambers, there are two primary problems at the federal level. The first, he said, is the method Congress has chosen for calculating the ratio of BEAD funding given to each state on top of the baseline $100 million allocation that has been granted across the board.

Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the amount of funding will be allocated proportionally based on the amount of un- and underseved locations in each state as determined by new maps being developed by the FCC. But given the vast majority of un-and underseved locations tend to be in rural areas and the FCC’s new maps aren’t expected to be 100% accurate anyway, Chambers argued the government could have used other existing data – like information about rural households gleaned from the recent census – to calculate the funding ratio faster.

He said it just doesn’t make sense not to use “a simpler method that will produce a number that’s probably just as accurate as the number that you’re going to get after spending years and years” on a new mapping effort. Chambers added this is especially true since the FCC’s maps won’t even necessarily be used by states to allocate grant funding once the BEAD money is dispensed.

The second issue relates to the challenge process the FCC is planning for its new maps. An FCC representative told Fierce a first draft of its new map is expected to be published in November, after which a Congressionally mandated challenge process will allow state, local and Tribal governments as well as consumers to weigh in on its accuracy. In addition to challenging coverage claims, the representative indicated the challenge process will also help refine the location fabric it is using as a basis for the map. The location fabric simply identifies all the serviceable locations in the country. The challenge process will not be time limited but instead be ongoing, with protests processed on a rolling basis.

Chambers, who through his position at Conexon has access to both a LightBox-developed broadband map for the state of Georgia and the FCC’s location fabric, said he’s already noticed a “meaningful difference” between the two. And since funding will be based on the number of un- and underserved locations on the map, that means states will have an incentive to file challenges to have more locations in their state recognized.

Conexon helps electric cooperatives build out fiber broadband networks for their members. The company’s Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium (RECC) was one of the biggest winners in 2020’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction. Before joining Conexon, Chambers spent four years as Chief of the Office of Strategic Planning at the FCC from 2012 to 2016, where he helped oversee its mapping efforts.

LightBox CEO Eric Frank told Fierce it’s not yet entirely clear how the FCC’s challenge process will work. But given there are millions of serviceable locations across the country, he said the agency will likely have to implement some measure of “materiality” to determine what disputes are prioritized for review. For instance, if the FCC map shows 20 unserved locations and a state map shows 22, that might not meet the review threshold, whereas a disparity with one map showing 0 unserved locations and the other showing 30 would be assessed.

Still, Chambers said the mapping process the FCC has been forced to work through is “impossible” and will only end up harming the very people Congress set out to help with BEAD.

“They need a course correction because this is going to be a mess,” he said. “There’s a train wreck about to occur. I’m trying to raise a flag. This is fixable. If this is all about the allocation, then this is the wrong path. There will be a train wreck and it will delay funding, meaning it will delay service in rural America.”

State maps

Beyond the federal hurdles, states have their own mapping issues which mainly center on the challenge process, Chambers said.

Under the IIJA, the BEAD funding will be allocated to the states based on the FCC’s coverage maps. But one it’s handed over, the states will have discretion over how it’s distributed and will be able to use their own mapping data to help prioritize funding.

LightBox, which bid for but lost out on the FCC’s mapping contract, has already inked broadband mapping deals with four states – Georgia, Montana, Alabama and, most recently, Texas. At present, Frank said LightBox’s pipeline includes about a dozen more states in various stages of discussions which could lead to a contract with the company.

But Frank said he expects those numbers to increase significantly, especially as states look to put their BEAD planning grants to use. The National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), which is administering BEAD, recently announced all 50 states have signed up to receive the grants. Under the IIJA, each state is eligible to receive up to $5 million to help with research and data collection, outreach, employee training, mapping and establishing or operating a broadband office.

States are also choosing other providers for their mapping efforts. In June, FCC location fabric provider CostQuest announced its services were being used by California, Maine, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio and Oregon. Others began their mapping efforts years ago, with Washington State and Indiana tapping GEO Partners to help gather crowd-sourced data.

Chambers said there’s no problem with states developing their own maps. As with the FCC, though, he said the challenge process presents a problem. Specifically, Chambers noted some states allow for the challenge process to continue even after grant awards are announced. And that, he said, leads to uncertainty about where funding truly is and isn’t available. It also leaves room for incumbents to challenge awards won by competitors.

“Guess who challenges? The incumbents, of course. But they only challenge in areas where they didn’t win,” he stated. “If you can fight about the maps, you never get money spent for new entrants, for competitors, for those that would build networks where the incumbents never did. The only thing you get is more money for incumbents.”

He argued states should put a “stake in the ground” firmly stating where funding will be available, and if a challenge process is held then it should be completed before awards are made.

“There’s an easier way to do all of this,” he concluded. “I don’t care whose map [it is], I just think there needs to be finality so we can get on with the business of serving rural America and that’s not what the current process is going to produce.”

This story has been updated to note state mapping efforts using CostQuest's and GEO Partners' services.