Washington is finally tackling one of the biggest obstacles to closing the nation's digital divide: identifying the broadband dead zones where millions of Americans lack fast internet service.
But that's coming too late for the broadband gold rush of 2021.
States and cities are already allocating more than $10 billion in federal pandemic relief to get broadband into underserved communities - the biggest government investment ever toward increasing internet connectivity. Another $42 billion in broadband expansion money is due to come from the bipartisan infrastructure law that President Joe Biden signed this month, but the government won't start doling that cash out for at least another year.
For now, though, many states don't know where to put that first round of cash. They have only a murky picture of where their internet dead spots are, thanks to the federal government's reliance on broadband mapping methods that dramatically overstate existing coverage.
The Federal Communications Commission's maps, based on data from telecom providers, have fueled years of complaints from local government leaders and members of Congress alike. And now they pose one of the biggest threats to getting millions more Americans wired with fast internet - an increasingly crucial gateway to jobs, schooling and commerce.
In one Mississippi county, the federal estimates of broadband availability are off by 80 percent, a regulator in that state has said. Ohio, West Virginia and Michigan, three states with huge connectivity shortfalls, have little idea how large their coverage gaps are or which counties have the worst problems.
Congress has required that better maps be in place before the infrastructure money is spent, which should make it easier to target the neediest areas during the second, larger round. But logistical hurdles are already threatening to delay the planned maps, pushing that larger bucket of money well into the future.
That means counties and towns that need the money now may lose out.
"The mapping has been totally inaccurate," said Gayle Manchin, co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission and wife of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). She said bad data has historically been an obstacle. "The federal government is saying you don't need funding because your state is completely covered."
Her husband, who co-chairs the Senate Broadband Caucus, has cited estimates that the FCC maps overstate West Virginia's broadband coverage by 36 percent - an error that rendered nearly 600,000 residents there ineligible for a recent round of federal broadband subsidies.
Current FCC mapping "stinks," agency Chair Jessica Rosenworcel acknowledged during her mid-November confirmation hearing. "For too long, the FCC's been working off maps that are not accurate," she told senators, stressing that staff are "working morning, noon and night" to lock down better data.
Any stumbles in steering the money would hold political implications for Democrats, who have promised that their infrastructure plan will expand the blessings of speedy internet service to rural hinterlands and inner cities.
And delays appear likely. The FCC already faces a bid protest over its selection of a contractor to help with the mapping effort.
People far from Washington just want to figure out who in their community lacks access.
In February, civic groups in southeastern Ohio's Athens County tapped high school history teacher Paul Isherwood as the county's first-ever broadband coordinator, a privately funded position meant to create a strategy for using the incoming dollars.
His first thought: "OK, I need to know where all the fiber is. Where's all the points of connection? Is there somewhere where there's a map? Do the county commissioners have that, does the city planner have that?"
The reaction to his questions: Laughter at his naivete.
Some states 'postured' and ready, others scrambling
Plenty of broadband money is already heading out the door even before the infrastructure grants start flowing.
Cities and states can draw broadband money from their shares of a $350 billion fund created by March's pandemic relief package, as well as a $10 billion Capital Projects Fund, both run out of the Treasury Department. Other pandemic relief efforts supporting digital infrastructure include a $980 million Commerce Department fund aimed at bolstering connectivity for American Indian tribes and another $288 million devoted to laying network gear.
Exactly how much of this money would go to broadband - and other connectivity fixes, such as cell towers - is in flux and varies by state. California has created a $6 billion broadband plan, while Virginia is eyeing $700 million, Tennessee $500 million and North Carolina $1.2 billion. States from Arizona to Wisconsin to Maine are pursuing plans to spend at least $100 million apiece. Individual cities have seized the potential too, such as Brownsville, Texas, which is tapping $20 million to lay fiber.
In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed a law this summer creating a broadband program aimed at providing $20 million in state money to go along with the expected federal dollars.
Some states have an advantage, however: They're armed with more accurate data about where to target the windfall.
Georgia worked to identify broadband gaps during the past three years, motivated by both the shoddy federal data and a hope to get money from former President Donald Trump's never-enacted infrastructure plan. Georgia's improved maps went online last year just as the state needed those details: coverage information down to the address, partly thanks to deal-making with local internet service providers. During Covid lockdowns, Georgia was able to identify where schoolchildren couldn't participate in remote learning due to lack of at-home broadband.
Leaders now see those early investments as fortuitous, given the $2.4 billion the state received in its first tranche of pandemic relief money - $300 million of which will go to broadband infrastructure.
"We're postured and we're ready," said Mike Curtis, director of planning and strategy in the Georgia Technology Authority. "We have everything in place - we have the vendors in place, we have the data in place, we have the providers in place. And we've got the money."
He added: "We're in graduate school. Some of these states, they're in elementary, maybe pre-K."
But the unreadiness of other states is unsettling policymakers who hope to see the money spent wisely. No strict requirements govern what data states can use to target their pandemic relief dollars.
"I am worried that there's different standards in different states," said former FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly, a Republican who left the agency last year. He projected that assembling better data could take two years, but said state officials won't wait to start spending. "If they've got the chance, they're going to try to do it."
In Ohio's Athens County, Isherwood supplemented his knowledge with speed test data from a company called Ookla - showing that at least 340,000 households in eastern Ohio had no home broadband connections. (In contrast, the FCC estimates that at most 328,000 households in the entire state have connections too slow to fit its definition of broadband.) But Ookla data is also far from authoritative, and Isherwood said the burden shouldn't be on communities to figure out the scope of the problem.
The 200 or so residents of the county's rural village of Amesville struggle with DSL service from Frontier Communications that Mayor Gary Goosman said falls well below the federal broadband threshold. When the Amesville library set up a Wi-Fi hot spot in the town center, people sat in their cars downloading homework assignments and filing unemployment paperwork, the mayor recalled.
Frontier spokesperson Erin Kurtz said the ISP, which emerged from bankruptcy in April, is "investing heavily to build fiber and bring lightning-fast broadband to communities across the country, many in underserved areas."
But for now, the mayor said, the only alternative is pricey satellite-beamed internet - difficult for many in the high-poverty area to afford. "Erroneous" coverage estimates have prevented him from obtaining federal funding in years past, he added.
"We've always known we were behind the curve in terms of speeds and availability, but that really jumped in the last year," Goosman said. "In Amesville, cellphones don't work."
And then came 2021, dangling its broadband dollars. More than 56 percent of Athens County voted for Biden, who has made broadband a kitchen-table issue and repeatedly invoked its importance this year.
'This war over datasets'
Even the telecom industry, which is set to reap some of these subsidies, fears charging ahead without adequate information. One of its main fears is "overbuilding" - the risk that inaccurate coverage data could lead to the government subsidizing new internet providers that compete with established carriers.
"With billions of dollars flowing before the FCC's broadband data collection is complete, yes, there is anxiety about that - that the dollars will not be targeted to the truly unserved," said Patrick Halley, who represents ISPs like AT&T and Verizon as general counsel for the trade group USTelecom. "There's no doubt that spending right now is based on incomplete data, and that's not ideal."
The telecom industry is a big reason the existing data is so spotty, however, given the wariness among ISPs to share proprietary information.
The nation's central repository of broadband maps has been hosted since 2018 at the FCC, a telecom regulator that has limited authority over the internet. The methodology the FCC uses for those maps has drawn widespread criticism for overestimating coverage: Under the forms that the carriers submit to the agency, if one household has internet, its entire census block is considered covered.
Nationally, this means we still don't know how many people need assistance, more than a decade after the federal government began releasing national broadband maps.
The official FCC figures say more than 14 million households nationwide are unconnected, lacking at-home broadband speeds of at least 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads. (The FCC's current Democratic leadership says this speed definition should be much higher).
But the true figure is closer to 42 million households, according to BroadbandNow, a consumer-centric website launched in 2014 that works with ISPs to get more detailed data about pricing and coverage, while allowing providers to advertise on its platform.
Others have also jumped in to supplement the FCC maps. Microsoft, Ookla and M-Lab have sketched out coverage estimates using speed tests and other methods. Census data has also provided some sense, as has analysis from the Pew Research Center.
The Biden administration assembled these varying datasets into an interactive map this summer while pitching its infrastructure plan, allowing people to compare coverage information with other factors like poverty level. But the tool doesn't contain any authoritative new data, even if it showcases how sharply the existing estimates vary.
The Treasury Department said it intentionally lets communities decide how to parse out the money.
Many states simply use the old FCC maps as a baseline despite their known issues, the advocacy organization Next Century Cities reported in May. Although some advocates welcome the leeway - saying local leaders are best positioned to identify broadband shortfalls - others worry about the political risks of sloppy spending.
"I have a real fear that there are going to be certain communities that are going to be spending money on things with unvetted advice," said Joshua Edmonds, the director of digital inclusion for Detroit, during a Knight Foundation event this summer.
In an interview, he urged communities to create richer data to fill the gap. "Local communities need to be stepping up. … That's not happening. Instead what we're getting is this war over datasets, and you know this - whoever has the best datasets calls the shots."
Washington, late to the rescue
One hard truth is that Washington mostly succeeded at creating a plan to fix its mapping woes - but did so too late to direct 2021's flood of money.
After years of frustration, Congress passed bipartisan legislation in February 2020 requiring the FCC to collect more accurate data, largely modeled off a 2019 mapping pilot by USTelecom.
Implementing this law happened in slow motion over the nearly two years since.
The FCC finally got $98 million for the effort last December. A month later, Rosenworcel became acting chair and got to work - assembling a data task force, hiring an IT vendor, asking consumers and industry for feedback, and offering an initial wireless coverage map with data from the largest providers.
But many people still don't expect authoritative maps until well into 2022, something Rosenworcel blames on the slow procurement process.
Experts say obtaining detailed coverage data could be a prerequisite for cracking the digital divide - and that better data, as in Georgia, could mean more effective lobbying for aid.
"Each state is going to want to position themselves so they can maximize the amount of dollars they can get," said Eric Frank, chief executive of a company called LightBox, which transformed its expertise in crunching reams of real estate data to help build Georgia's granular internet maps.
Frank insists nationwide mapping should be technically easy - a simple scaling up of what the company already did - and allow government officials to easily offer customized versions with "data layers" to boost analyses.
LightBox is eager for a larger role in that effort: This month, the company challenged the FCC's decision to award a nearly $45 million mapping contract to a rival company, a dispute that could mean months of delay. Rosenworcel has suggested Congress may need to intervene to speed the process.
Trying to make do
In disconnected areas such as Amesville and its surrounding communities, the sense of urgency tends to outweigh any squabbling over targeting investments.
Liz Shaw, who lives just outside Amesville, reached her breaking point four years ago, when slow, unreliable internet service foiled her attempts to order items for the baby shower of her first grandchild. The page "just kept spinning out," she said. "I kept getting the blue wheel of death."
"I just slumped into the kitchen floor. I sat there and cried for maybe 15 to 20 minutes," Shaw recalled. "Then I started cussing. And I felt better when I started cussing. I said, 'OK, that's it, I'm not going to be a victim here.'"
What that meant was organizing. Within weeks, she spearheaded a regional summit in nearby Marietta, Ohio, that lured then-FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. Attendees told unsettling stories, for example the soccer coach who collapsed on the field and died due to the inability to reach 911 in time. Bad cell coverage.
The summit proved a success, catalyzing regional organizing - but even years later, the connectivity woes remain. Shaw teaches music, and the only way she can obtain internet service to conduct her virtual private lessons is through a pricey Wi-Fi hot spot. Even that gets too slow to be practical near the end of the month, when she runs out of high-speed data.
"I just can't afford to buy more data," she said. "You just have to stop at some point."
Shaw is also quick to label the mapping "brouhaha" as "BS," adding that coverage is "pretty much a math problem. Where is it - from the providers, because they're the only ones providing it - and where is it not. Bingo. And I'm where it's not."
The region has seen small improvements. Carol Kirk, who lives three miles from the center of Amesville, can finally receive text messages inside her home, unlike three years ago. Gerry Hilferty, who runs an Athens County design firm that works with museums, said fiber internet service is finally connecting the Windy Hills Farm where the firm operates.
Still, Kirk complains that the DSL internet infrastructure elsewhere in the region is decaying and fails during heavy rain. Mice chew at exposed equipment, she said. Her internet goes out sporadically throughout the day. She can't download apps at home and has to go into Amesville to do so. Sometimes she'll leave a note complaining at the local ISP's office while she's there.
"When the power goes out or the internet goes out, I have to go up to the ridge and sit in my car and make that my office," Kirk said.