Maps and money dominated the broadband discourse in 2022

If you worked in the broadband industry in 2022, it was nearly impossible to go a week without hearing something about either maps or money. Discussions about the former largely focused on when exactly the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would finally come out with its revised broadband map and arguments over whether it would really be as good as promised. While money matters were largely overshadowed by hype about the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program, there was also plenty of talk about grant awards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect program and state broadband funds.

Here's a rundown of what you need to know and where things stand as we head into 2023.

Map mania

The telecom industry has been waiting for the FCC to release new, more granular fixed and mobile broadband coverage maps since Congress passed legislation in March 2020 requiring the agency to do so. But the FCC has been up against a few hurdles. It couldn’t start the project until Congress allocated funding for it, which didn’t happen until the end of 2020. With $98 million in hand, the FCC created the Broadband Data Task Force in February 2021 and got cracking.

But it soon hit another roadblock. While it tapped CostQuest to provide the underlying location fabric for its new maps in November 2021, its choice was challenged by competing vendors. The issue wasn’t fully settled until March of this year. The FCC subsequently opened its first broadband data collection window on June 30. This closed on September 1, kicking off a challenge process enabling operators to request corrections to the location fabric.

With much fanfare, the FCC released the first version of its new map in November, earning praise from industry groups who deemed it a giant step in the right direction. The map’s debut opened the door for all interested parties to challenge not just the location fabric but also the broadband coverage data provided by operators. Thus far, New York and Colorado have indicated they plan to file thousands of challenges, while Washington State sought to rally the public to weigh in before an initial challenge window closes on January 13, 2023.

The FCC has said a second iteration of the location fabric will be released this month and a second data collection period will run from December 31, 2022 to March 1, 2023. A second version of the map is expected sometime in early 2023.

So, why does everyone care so much about the FCC’s map? Well, the map is going to be used by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to allocate money from the $42.5 billion BEAD program based on the number of unserved locations in each state. Thus, millions and potentially billions of dollars hinge on the map’s accuracy.

The NTIA has said it wanted the FCC to complete one full challenge process for the map before it calculated the state allocations. It now expects to announce the state awards by June 30, 2023.

Money matters

Given the level of funding provided, it’s no surprise all eyes have been trained on what’s happening with the BEAD program. Though it might seem like states are in a holding pattern until the NTIA announces their allocations, there’s plenty of work to be done in the interim. States are hard at work staffing up their broadband offices and many have already received million in BEAD planning grants to develop five-year deployment plans.

As of December 22, at least 47 states had received BEAD planning grants, with Massachusetts, Montana and New Mexico appearing to be the only states that had yet to be awarded planning funds. 

BEAD aside, though, there’s plenty of other money floating around. Applications for the $1 billion Middle Mile federal grant program were due by the end of September. The program elicited an overwhelming response, with the NTIA reporting it received applications requesting %5.5 billion in aid. Awards are expected to be made starting in March 2023.

Meanwhile, the USDA has been steadily dishing out grants for the third round its ReConnect program all year. In July, it doled out $401 million for 20 projects and followed up with another $502 million for 32 projects in September. It handed out $759 million for 49 projects in October. The agency announced plans to distribute another $1.15 billion in broadband funding through ReConnect Round 4. Applications for Round 4 funding were due by November 2, which means awards will likely start flowing in 2023.

On the federal front, the FCC continued processing winning bids from the multi-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, which closed in late 2020. But that’s a whole other story, which Fierce will cover separately.

Operators across the country also went head-to-head in a race to scoop up state-level grants, many of which were fueled by money from the American Rescue Plan Act. By the second half of the year, Windstream, Charter Communications and Comcast appeared to be leading the charge with big award wins. However, AT&T, Altice USA, and Frontier Communications were all striving to add to their tallies.

As the industry heads into 2023, FierceTelecom remains dedicated to tracking maps, money and the intersection between the two.