Broadband Rollout Depends on Fixing ‘Woefully Inadequate’ Maps

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Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo discussed the agency’s current plans for installing broadband, emphasizing the need for state planning and communication. 

Flexibility and adaptivity are key components of the nationwide push to expand broadband access across the country, as the Department of Commerce seeks to understand which geographical regions need to be prioritized, Secretary Gina Raimondo said during a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

Several lawmakers, including Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt, inquired about the accuracy of broadband accessibility and coverage maps designed by the Federal Communication Commission. These maps will inform Commerce which areas of the country need broadband infrastructure the most. 

The FCC’s coverage maps have caught criticism before, with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, calling them “woefully inadequate.” 

Raimondo said that these maps will be pivotal to broadband installations, and that Commerce will be using data from the census to get a better idea of individual household needs. 

“I do have confidence they will be, you know, more accurate than in the past,” Raimondo said. 

Pending the completion and finalization of these maps, Raimondo explained that Commerce intends to launch a notice of funding opportunity around May 16. From there, states must submit individual letters of intent, and, upon federal approval, be awarded $5 million in planning funding for technical assistance. 

Raimondo recommended that states jumpstart their individual plans for broadband deployment soon to get an accurate assessment of current coverage. 

Raimondo explained the current timeline that Commerce is working with as it begins to roll out broadband access is focused on engaging with state needs to determine the challenges associated with installing new infrastructure, and tailor projects with their needs in mind. 

“The way we are administering this program is with great flexibility,” she said. “If I deliver no other message today, I want to be clear…we do not have a one size fits all approach. Because I don’t believe that would be successful.”

Exactly which communities will first receive the initial broadband infrastructure rollouts was also a topic of discussion during the hearing. Raimondo confirmed that pursuant to the Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, her administration is prioritizing unserved communities over underserved communities––that is, delivering broadband access to communities shown to be without broadband access and next, awarding funding to communities with limited access.

Murkowski brought up the pressing need for better broadband infrastructure on Native American tribal lands––something the Biden administration has focused on improving

Raimondo said that efforts to deploy broadband in tribal regions are running behind schedule, but it remains a priority for the department. She emphasized that many broadband proposals received by Native American communities have needed to be augmented. 

“We want to give the tribes a chance to get the money, which means you have to help them improve their proposals,” she said. 

Tribal advocates and leadership previously brought up the difficulties some communities have in accessing federal funding help––often due to the lack of internet access in the first place. 

“We've learned that you have to really do stakeholder engagement, because the needs and conditions in tribes are just different,” Raimondo added. “And so we have to get out in front of it and listen even more.”