FCC locks in key vendor for broadband map revamp

Work on broadband maps which will be used to distribute billions in federal funding can finally get underway, after a government watchdog approved the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) selection of CostQuest Associates as a key vendor for the project.

The FCC originally tapped CostQuest to provide broadband location data for its long-planned map overhaul on November 9. However, the government contract award process allowed for other vendors to challenge its decision by filing a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which fellow location data company LightBox did shortly after the FCC announced its pick. The GAO, though, upheld the FCC’s choice in a decision issued last week, opening the door for work on the maps to begin.

An FCC spokesperson told Fierce it is “pleased” with the GAO’s decision, adding “Now we can proceed with the development of this key element of improved mapping.”

At a Congressional hearing in November, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel explained its new maps will rely on something called the Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric (BSLF) which “tells you where every location that can be served in this country is.” This fabric is “essential, it’s the ground floor” for the FCC’s effort to revamp its broadband maps, she said.

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CostQuest, which previously provided broadband mapping services for Department of Commerce, is tasked with delivering that foundational fabric. CEO Jim Stegeman told Fierce the company’s BSLF will meld together a number of different data sets, including tax assessor information which specifies land use and the number of buildings on a property; digital footprints which depict the outline of the buildings on each parcel; road data; and polygon data which shows coverage footprints. Addresses will then be overlaid on top.

The company has 120 days to provide the first version of its BSLF to the FCC. The fabric will then be handed to operators, which will have until September 1 to submit their broadband coverage data to the FCC.

“Normalization is really what this is gearing towards. Everyone works from the same locational data set to provide information to the FCC,” Stegeman explained. “It should simplify the FCC’s effort because everyone will be working on that same data set as far as what’s served and unserved.”

Stegeman noted CostQuest will not be involved in processing the thousands of operator submissions that are expected – the FCC will have sole responsibility for crunching that data to produce the final broadband coverage maps.

Plenty is riding on completion of the new maps, specifically tens of billions of dollars of federal funding recently allocated for broadband through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

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“We absolutely need to get those maps done because all of the money that is flowing through the infrastructure bill depends on them being available,” Rosenworcel explained at the November hearing. Despite delays related to the contract challenge process, Rosenworcel said she was “still hopeful that we’re going to be able to do this with haste.”

Besides its work with the FCC, Stegeman said CostQuest is working with the states to ensure they can make informed decisions when it comes to allocating broadband funding, since much of the federal funding will flow through state-level grant programs. He noted CostQuest is able to link its BSLF data to an internal cost modeling engine to help officials get a better ideal of how much money will be needed to close the digital divide in their area.

“We’re actively talking to states, trying to make sure they’re as informed as they can be because of the challenge ahead. You know, how do you spend $42 billion in BEAD money in the most appropriate manner to close the divide as best possible. And our data will help in that effort,” he concluded.