Michigan aims to scrub coverage overstatements from its BEAD map

  • Michigan plans to aggressively challenge fixed wireless providers whose coverage seems suspiciously overstated

  • The state is aware of potential overstatements from Mercury Broadband

  • Potential overstatements by Mercury did not get scrubbed off the FCC’s broadband map in Kansas

The Michigan High Speed Internet Office kicked off its BEAD challenge process this week, and it’s doing everything in its power to scrub the FCC map of locations where providers are overstating their coverage.

The mitten-shaped state is receiving a historic $1.56 billion BEAD funding allocation — the fourth highest in the nation. Starting yesterday, it is accepting challenges to the FCC's broadband map for the state through its interactive state challenge portal until April 25.

However, the state is aware of potential misrepresentations on its broadband map. Specifically, questions have arisen about Mercury Broadband’s fixed wireless access (FWA) coverage in 12 counties in Michigan. Mercury has claimed practically ubiquitous FWA coverage in those counties.

Eric Frederick, Michigan’s chief connectivity officer, told Fierce that Mercury has made similar, sweeping claims across the southern third of the state.

Since state broadband challenge processes are on a tight 30-day deadline, the Michigan broadband office has done a lot of preparatory work.

Frederick said he has over 13 years’ experience mapping broadband in the state, and his office will employ a couple of tools to challenge potential overstatements.

It’s working with the non-profit organization Merit to get the word out to community organizations and encourage them to challenge locations where the map says broadband is served but for which they think that is inaccurate.

“I expect a lot of engagement from Merit to gather challenge data across the state,” said Frederick.

In addition, the Michigan High Speed Internet Office adopted an “area challenge modification” that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) allows. This means that if six valid challenges are filed against the same provider within a single census block, that will trigger an area challenge. For FWA providers, that means they’ll have to prove that all locations from a random 10% sampling of that census block are truly served. 

“It flips that burden of proof,” said Frederick. “I think that tool is going to help us quite a bit.”

In addition, Michigan was able to get the area challenge further refined for the least densely populated 20% of census groups. For those locations, an area challenge will be triggered if there are three valid challenges against one provider.

Rural locations in Kansas got left behind

Unfortunately, potential overstatements by Mercury did not get scrubbed off the FCC’s broadband map in Kansas. 

The Kansas Broadband Office has completed its BEAD challenge process, and even though the office suspected Mercury of overstating its FWA coverage it wasn’t able to do anything about it.

Jade Piros, director of the Kansas Office of Broadband Development, said she got a complaint last summer because the company’s coverage claims on the FCC’s map were more extensive than its claims on its own website.

“I was trying to reconcile that,” said Piros. “This is what your website says. This is what you submitted.”

Mercury’s response to Piros was that its website was outdated and not fully reflective of its service availability. And it promised to update its website soon.

That has not happened, according to Jeff Wick, the CEO of WTC Fiber. WTC ran a script last summer, comparing Mercury’s website coverage claims to the FCC’s broadband map. WTC was the company that alerted the Kansas broadband office about the inconsistent data. Wick said a quick check of a few sites on Mercury’s website recently still shows the same data as last summer.

Piros reached out to the FCC last summer about the issue, explaining that if Mercury was overstating its FWA coverage and no one challenged it, then the areas ostensibly covered by Mercury would not be available for BEAD funding.

“We didn’t really come to any kind of conclusion that made the situation better because no one is doing anything wrong,” she said.

And it is correct that even if Mercury is overstating its FWA coverage, it’s not illegal. That’s because the FCC said it is valid for a WISP to claim it serves a location if it can initiate service through a routine installation within 10 business days of a request for service.

But what happens now if an area is assumed covered by Mercury, and thus not eligible for BEAD, and Mercury cannot or will not supply FWA to that location? Piros said, “I don’t see a path forward for those areas.”

In Michigan, Frederick wants to minimize that situation for rural homes and businesses. That's why he's putting so much effort in challenging questionable data on the state's map.