NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — As Gov. Bill Lee pushes for another $200 million to expand broadband access in Tennessee, an expert group said the state should first map out just where hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans without access to high-speed Internet live, so officials don't have to rely on federal maps that overstate coverage in some communities.
A better map would use data from each address, instead of the federal maps' reliance on census blocks that tend to be bigger in rural areas and are designated as “covered” when a single household can access high-speed Internet, regardless of whether others in the area are left without connections.
The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations said in a report last month that Tennessee should join several states in seeking more precision and not waiting around for a rewrite of the federal maps, which is in the works but with no definitive timeline.
The report concluded that the Department of Economic and Community Development should follow the map-making lead of Georgia, which found that at least 255,000 homes and businesses “are at best only partially served,” even though their census blocks are listed as fully served by the Federal Communications Commission, which has relied on broadband providers for its maps.
Tennessee ranked 34th among states in broadband coverage, according to the FCC’s 2020 broadband deployment report, which relies on December 2018 data. There are still 432,627 Tennesseans living in census blocks where no provider reported the baseline broadband speeds as of December 2019, the report said.
After the Republican governor’s broadband budget request, a department spokesperson did not rule out creating a Tennessee map.
“Mapping will remain critical to informing our funding decisions regarding the $200 million proposed by Governor Lee,” said department spokesperson Jennifer McEachern. “We’re exploring this recommendation from TACIR and are working with the governor’s office to ensure that accurate availability data remains part of Tennessee’s broadband strategy.”
Disputed maps are a key factor in debates over broadband expansion, which have only intensified since President Joe Biden, early in his campaign, promised a $20 billion infusion into rural broadband. The coronavirus pandemic has further exposed nationwide coverage gaps, revealing that hundreds of thousands of Americans lack communication lifelines to work and school, to sign up for vaccines or to get other help.
Georgia updates its map annually based on address-level data reported to the state under agreements with broadband providers, the report noted. Providers were assured the information they share with the state is “protected and cannot be publicly shared in ways that would reveal business-sensitive information.” Local governments can help shape the maps by providing locations of broadband gaps.
The FCC maps, which allow providers to claim maximum speeds that may not be offered at every address, can make it difficult to target grants to underserved areas. Congress set aside $98 million in December for the FCC to improve its data, as required in a law passed last March. The FCC announced a task force on the initiative last week, promising coverage information based on individual locations.
To provide an independent check on the providers' claims, one upcoming test aims to show whether the U.S. Postal Service and other federal agencies with delivery vehicles can collect broadband data along their routes.
Jean Kiddoo, who leads the FCC's task force, she said it will probably take until next year to finish improving the agency's coverage maps, though she stressed that's just a guess.
Telecom giant AT&T expressed openness to a new map in Tennessee, saying through a spokesperson that “To enable consistent mapping methods across the country, states like Tennessee can complement the national broadband map required by the DATA Act and assist in improving its accuracy.”
Getting better coverage data isn't a new endeavor for states, or even Tennessee. The Connected Tennessee project, which aimed for more detailed mapping, was defunded in 2015, its website notes.
Broadband coverage in Tennessee improved by more than 5 percentage points since then, to the point where in December 2019, about 94% of Tennesseans lived in census blocks where at least one provider reported meeting the FCC’s broadband benchmark for at least one customer, the report said. But this leaves hundreds of thousands of people without reliable access to information, it noted.
The Georgia mapping project had an initial budget of $2 million, with ongoing estimated costs between $500,000 and $1 million annually to make updates, according to TACIR’s research.
Tennessee, meanwhile, has relied on FCC data since 2018 for an ongoing grant program that pays companies or utilities to expand broadband access, mostly to rural areas. More than $44.3 million has been awarded, with $15 million more to be announced this year, the report noted. Federal funding, including COVID-19 relief, provides several other pots of broadband money.
But even when connections are there, affordability remains a top concern. In census blocks where at least one provider reported offering broadband, only 58% of households subscribed, according to FCC’s 2020 broadband progress report.