Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Maps, Maps Everywhere - Episode 528 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Dustin Loup, Project Manager of the National Broadband Mapping Coalition, housed at the Marconi Society. Dustin joins us to talk about the new national Federal Communications Commission broadband maps, currently under construction and intended to replace the current and hopelessly broken one to prepare for tens of billion in federal broadband funding.
There will hopefully be many improvements in the new maps, the first version of which is due out this month (we're not holding our breath): more granular data, more precision, and a better picture to drive future infrastructure investment in smart, efficient ways. Christopher and Dustin talk through what they hope to see, before turning to some of the problems the see emerging. This includes the frustrating walls already placed around the (tax dollar-funded) data, almost entirely restricting access to researchers and policy makers for accountability purposes, the probability of abuse by large providers, and the troublingly large $50-million contract to ConstQuest proposed in a recent announcement by NTIA to get access to something the federal government has already paid for, to administer the $42.5 billion BEAD program.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Dustin Loup (00:10):
To how locked down the fabric is and the proprietary nature of it. It places a burden on governmental entities just to access the data set itself.
Christopher Mitchell (00:30):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance recording my first ever show from Winnipeg, where I am with Dustin Loup of the Broadband Mapping Coalition. Welcome.
Dustin Loup (00:48):
Thanks Chris. Happy to be here
Christopher Mitchell (00:50):
Yeah. Now I can go back to my normal voice <laugh>. We're up here for the Indigenous Connectivity Summit and it's awesome. And this is a great time for us to talk about something in a, in a quick digestible format because we're both running off in different directions in five minutes. <laugh> <laugh>. So the fcc, the Federal Communications Commission was needing a map to try and figure out where broadband is because it was a year 2021 and they suddenly realized, you know what, we don't have a map of broadband and like we never figured out that we probably should have a map of broadband and to have a map of where broadband is, we need to know what all structures in the United States would or should could be getting broadband. And so they were like, we need a fabric. What happened next, Dustin?
Dustin Loup (01:35):
So, I mean, let's just make sure to be clear that SEAT did have a map is just very bad,
Christopher Mitchell (01:40):
Right? Right. It's so bad that it's questionable whether it was helpful at all.
Dustin Loup (01:44):
Right? Right. And so in recognizing the need to update these maps and provide a new system for measuring broadband availability in the us, the FCC went out for bid to find an entity that could develop what they call a broadband serviceable locations fabric
Christopher Mitchell (02:07):
Bsl, broadband serviceable locations. Remember that? <laugh>?
Dustin Loup (02:11):
Yes. I do not want to say it in its entirety every time. So either BSL or just the fabric perhaps. And so in contracting out for that fabric, an entity called CostQuest was selected to identify every BSL across the United States, or at least attempt to and in
Christopher Mitchell (02:34):
And CostQuest is a company that has a history of working with the fcc, right? Like this isn't the first contract they got. They were been responsible for a lot of the cost models the FCC has used to try and figure out how much money it could shovel at at and t for it not to connect a bunch of places with broadband. Right. So, sorry, just a little bit of sarcasm baked in <laugh>. I'm still a little bit bitter about it.
Dustin Loup (02:56):
<laugh>. So there was a preexisting relationship. It is true. And, but what's really problematic here is what we do and don't know about the contract that the FCC executed with CostQuest after selecting them as a vendor to build this fabric. what we do know is that the fabric is proprietary. It is being built and will be owned by conquest. That has been made very clear almost to the point that I would wonder whether we should call them our national maps or conquests maps.
Christopher Mitchell (03:35):
Right? Which is to say there are hundreds of millions of structures in the United States trying to figure out which ones should have broadband to them. So the often ex, an example might be on a farm there are multiple structures and although you might want to have connectivity in each of them, you're probably gonna deliver broadband to the home or, and maybe a barn and then it will be distributed on the farm or whatever. But that's not the problem of the isp. The problem for the i p is where to put it. And co quests has a herculean task of trying to figure that out using a lot of AI and humans and satellite imagery and whatnot. So this is a very difficult task, but <laugh> like it's being paid handsomely for it. And it's one thing to say, oh, well this is co quests data. What does that mean right now? For instance, if you're a state for instance what does it mean that we don't have access to this in the public or the local governments or a variety of other folks, non-profit organizations don't have access to it absent to coming to an agreement with co quests.
Dustin Loup (04:42):
Yeah. So I think it's important here actually to take a step
Christopher Mitchell (04:45):
Back and I don't like stepping back
Dustin Loup (04:46):
<laugh>. Well, I think we're gonna have to just, just to emphasize why this is so important, right? The fccs new maps of which the base layers being built by cos quests have been intrinsically linked to the bead funding that NTA will be administering 42.5 billion for broadband deployment in which the allocation of funding to states and territories for broadband deployment and is based on the FCC maps and the number of unserved broadband serviceable locations in each state as it's distributed across the the country. And so we have a lot of money being tied to these maps, which puts states, communities, tribes, all on high alert about the accuracy of these maps. And it's very important both in the allocation to the states and the subgrants that states will issue from there to entities within that state to deploy broadband. It, it's going to be critical that either the maps are correct or we have a way to correct them mm-hmm. <affirmative>
Christopher Mitchell (06:15):
Which is where it would be important for my organization, your organization and organizations that are working with in coalition states and local governments to have full access to the data to be able to evaluate it for its accuracy.
Dustin Loup (06:30):
Right? So it would be great if independent entities not ISPs outside of, outside of ISPs and governmental entities could get in and help verify that. But also due to how locked down the fabric is and the proprietary nature of it, it places a burden on governmental entities just to access the data set itself in working with several communities at the county level and tribal level. In some cases they've spent months trying to access this fabric because it's a 16 step process with multiple day delays that come from multiple different angles. And local governments don't always move nimbly to begin with. So to put this <laugh>, I'd say it's a herculean task to get access to the fabric,
Christopher Mitchell (07:25):
Right? And that's hoping we get free access, which it isn't clear that all of us can get. It isn't clear that all of us could get access to all of the data. We might only be able to access portions of it here and there because this is a proprietary data set. Now, there's a lot that you and I could go on, but we're already running late for where we gotta go next. So there's two things I want to hit on. One is we haven't even been able to see the contract that the FCC signed with CostQuest for this, which is deeply troubling,
Dustin Loup (07:57):
Right? So I'll get to the contract in a second. I just do want to touch quickly
Christopher Mitchell (08:00):
On stop brushing me, Chris, on
Dustin Loup (08:02):
One, one piece here because we will at some point have some level of free access to the fabric just in the same way that ISPs and governmental entities do. However, that free access is the only allowable use is to help CostQuest build the database and not for any sort of use to analyze the change in the digital divide over time to run independent analysis. It's only for the purposes of helping them correct or add to their, their database or to report the availability data on top of it. Now, back to the contract piece. This is a very disturbing, this is a very disturbing part of the process for up to 44 million contract with the fcc. That this is all behind an opaque process. I have filed a FOIA request and have been unsuccessful at receiving any documents so far. I do expect at some point to receive a redacted version of the contract, which does not include any of the line items of what they're providing to the fcc.
And perhaps more importantly, will redact the license agreements and the user class agreements, which are the agreements that bind the FCC governmental entities, ISPs, eventually third parties such as ILSR and the broadband mapping coalition end users, as well as other federal agencies that need to use these maps to administer their programs. All of the allowable uses and the ways in which the terms impact them are going to be redacted from the foyer request. And one of the purposes that was given in justifying the redaction of those user class agreements is that it could be a competitive disadvantage for CostQuest if the terms of the class agreement or the user agreement were made public because that could provide a competitor to offer more favorable terms. Now, let's be clear here, <laugh>, everyone's being strong-armed into helping Coquet build their database here. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And there is really no alternative because effectively,
Christopher Mitchell (10:36):
Well, what else? What are they gonna use the database for? Who else would CostQuest sell it to? Do we have any answers to that question?
Dustin Loup (10:44):
<laugh>? Well, funny enough, they'll be turning around and selling it to the same entities that are agreeing to the user class agreements to help correct the data set, which dictates their eligibility for bead funding and funding through other programs. But if they want to use that for infrastructure planning, for digital equity monitoring, for any other use cases outside of perhaps building the correcting and challenging CostQuest data set mm-hmm. <affirmative>, then they're going to have to purchase a license agreement. Or if we're talking about something like the administration of the bead program, it's possible that NT I a will be paying another $50 million in order to provide access to the states in the administration of they're bead funds.
Christopher Mitchell (11:39):
And we say it's possible there's a contract up for review right now where N T I A is proposing to do this. And it's frankly horrifying. I mean, it's, it's opaque. We're spending that's 50 million that is not gonna be spent building better internet access to people. It's $50 million that cannot be used for digital equity. It's $50 million that seems to be unnecessary for actually completing the public policy goals that require the fabric in it in the first place.
Dustin Loup (12:10):
Right. And it's, it's still a problem. I do wanna clarify here on the, the 50 million that I did get an affirmative answer that that will be coming from the NT i's administrative overhead. Okay. And not from the total that's available to the state. So that was at least a positive development
Christopher Mitchell (12:28):
Was 50 million less of people that will be helping the states deal with all of this then.
Dustin Loup (12:32):
That is true. Yes. And I know that that is very likely to put a burden on the i
Christopher Mitchell (12:38):
J 50 million is a lot of money. Like, I mean, we're like 42 and a half million dollars. You know, what, what's $50 million? It's a lot of freaking money still. Right?
Dustin Loup (12:46):
And 50 million on top of what the FCC is already paying to build these maps. So again, they're building these maps and then turning around and selling them to all of the entities that are forced to use them to administer programs and to access those funds. And I also do want to be fair and include all of the information here included in that additional 50 million contract opportunity opportunities and pretty strong air quotes here. Cause it's really only an opportunity for CostQuest. But the 50 million does include the cost models that you mentioned earlier that they're already working on the FCC with. And I think what's called a technology availability estimate model. the acronym's, T a l I'm not sure what it is, but it does include in additional components beyond the, the fabric and the mapping. So do want to be, you know, at least comprehensive in what we're talking about here.
Christopher Mitchell (13:49):
I appreciate that. And I think it, I think it is important. This is such a bad situation. There is no need to exaggerate any part of it. We need to be very clear about what is happening because <laugh>, it's just, it's so frustrating and I, and I just, I feel like I wanna be also clear that I'm not saying co quests is a bad company. I am deeply frustrated with the Federal Communications Commission for putting us in this place where this is what we have. They waited forever to do what was needed to be done, and then they were stuck and then they went with, for whatever reason, a terrible contract and, and not making this data public in ways that is just really frustrating. And, and you're just in a, in this place where you're just like, how does this keep happening? But we're not gonna be able to answer that question right now. I'm really glad that you're out there trying to get this information and make it clear for people. So, so let me thank you for that and ask if there's any concluding comments.
Dustin Loup (14:43):
Yeah. Chris, thank you for asking me. Where do we go from here?
Christopher Mitchell (14:46):
Dustin Loup (14:48):
so just, just to kind of wrap this up and, and provide a little bit of hope and opportunity here. There are a lot, a lot of problems with the way in which we are building our next generation of national broadband maps. There is an opportunity for states and local communities to step up to the challenge and build better data sets that are b based on better local data that go well beyond what the FCC maps would even be able to describe in terms of what the broadband and digital equity ecosystems look like.
Christopher Mitchell (15:32):
And I think we're gonna cover that in a future show that might be recorded tomorrow morning, perhaps.
Dustin Loup (15:38):
Christopher Mitchell (15:39):
Dustin Loup (15:41):
Well, I just wanna,
Christopher Mitchell (15:41):
I think, I think it's really important to talk about this in a little bit more depth because this is an opportunity not just to say we're gonna have better maps of where broadband is but maps that will actually help us solve multiple challenges that are coming down the pike. this is not something we're in three or four years we'll be like, ma'am, glad we solved this problem. What are we gonna do now with our time? Right. Making sure everyone can use high quality internet access is not something that will be resolved in a few years.
Dustin Loup (16:07):
Right. And the, the goalpost of digital equity is going to be one that is moving. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> digital equity of today is different than the digital equity of tomorrow. And if we only measure to what it looks like today and aren't prepared to continue to measure that moving forward, then we're gonna find ourselves in the same cycle. In 20 years from now, we're gonna be scrambling to gather that data. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and rushing to spend money in a way that is not effective or efficient.
Christopher Mitchell (16:38):
Right. Alright. Thank you. Thank
Dustin Loup (16:40):
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