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State office may not challenge broadband maps, risking hundreds of millions of federal funds for Texas

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Corrigan residents look on as Lonnie Hunt speaks about broadband gaps in their community in 2019.
Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio

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Billions of dollars are up for grabs next month to expand broadband availability across the country. But the maps that will determine where the money goes are inaccurate, according to the Texas comptroller, because internet service providers inflated their coverage areas.

The Texas office charged with challenging and improving those maps at the state level says it can’t. And that could leave hundreds of millions of dollars on the table that should have gone to expanding broadband in underserved areas.

In small cinder block community centers across deep East Texas, Lonnie Hunt has been preaching the gospel of broadband and how it can save small town Texas.

“I don’t think I need to say this, but why do we need broadband? Because we can’t survive without it in the future,” Hunt said to one group in Corrigan Texas in 2019.

Hunt — a former county judge — leads the Deep East Texas Council of Governments (DETCOG), a predominantly rural region set amongst the piney woods of East Texas.

It’s rich in scenic beauty and small town charm but poor in good internet service.

For four years, Hunt and his team have spent countless hours on the road back and forth across the region and to Austin advocating for broadband funds and preparing for the moment when the government finally decides to pour money into expansion.

The Biden administration’s Infrastructure Bill, with $42.5 billion for broadband, is that moment.

“This is the big pot at the end of the rainbow, we hope, that's getting ready to come online,” he said this month in an interview.

But Hunt and other broadband advocates were surprised when the November newsletter from the state Broadband Development Office said it would not file a challenge to the current broadband maps and instead asked communities to do it — potentially costing the state hundreds of millions through the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program (BEAD).

Many advocates discussed the issue with TPR and described it as an about face that leaves unprepared communities to pick up the slack for the state at the 11th hour.

“Well, it's disappointing and frustrating. And frankly, I don't understand it,” Hunt said.

The Broadband Development Office was set up in 2021 under the Comptroller. The office is by statute charged with challenging the FCC broadband maps. But in the November newsletter — the day the federal government issued its new maps — it said it couldn’t.

According to the BDO, it can’t because Lightbox — the company it paid millions to map Texas and to find at the granular level what availability looks like throughout the state — hasn’t reached an agreement with the FCC.

Screenshot of the Broadband Development Office's November Newsletter

The issue at hand really doesn't have anything to do with lightbox,” said Eric Frank, CEO of Lightbox.

Frank said his company did its job but Texas can’t give the data to the FCC if the agency’s federal contractor, CostQuest, can turn around and use it commercially, giving its competitor free labor and intellectual property.

If they did, it would hurt hundreds of companies like his who did this work for states and communities.

“I mean why would a data vendor who spends money, builds intellectual property, creates a product, give that away? Are you going to ask Sony to give away their archive of films?” Frank asked.

CostQuest explained in a statement to TPR that everyone should have known the challenge rules because they were initially passed in 2020. It said it would use challenge data to update the FCC national broadband map, but did not say whether the data would be sold elsewhere.

“The fact that a party approaches a state to assist a state’s BEAD driven broadband efforts and then fails to fulfill a state’s needs seems to be the issue here,” said a CostQuest spokeswoman.

Lightbox is not the only one calling foul over the FCC’s arrangement. Texas is one of a handful of states which are in the same predicament — where the state doesn’t own the data but leases it and the companies don’t think it is right.

The FCC didn’t respond to TPR's request for comment.

“This is a once in a generation opportunity. And the inability for Harris County to benefit from a statewide Challenge is a pressing issue,” said John Speirs, manager for the Harris County Office of Broadband.

Mickey Slimp with DETCOG worried the challenge process may be beyond many users. And it assumes they have the internet to challenge the broadband maps. When he saw that the maps said he had fiber connectivity to the home, he tried to challenge it.

“The response was basically ‘You have sufficient service here.’ And that was about it. It was not about the map's accuracy, but about the service capability,” he said.

The comptroller sent a letter to the federal government insisting on an additional 60 days to challenge the maps. He said internet service providers are inflating their availability and it is hurting communities.

Without better maps, the same communities already in the access gap will be again impacted.

“That is something that will disproportionately impact those communities that have already been experiencing the digital divide, and that have been historically left out of funding allocations in the past,” Speirs said.

Speirs said communities are having to step up and challenge the maps themselves but it is unlikely they can replace the statewide effort. The challenge process is complex and the federal government gave them less than two months to do it — two months that include three recognized holidays.

“This is a heavy lift in an extremely short amount of time,” said a letter sent from San Antonio city staff to elected office holders.

The letter encouraged elected leaders to get behind the extension request because it collects more data for its own bulk challenge from the city and county. It is also launching a website that walks people through the process to challenge the maps.

In his letter, Comptroller Hegar — who did not respond to TPR's request for comment — made no mention of the treasure trove of data Texas paid for that currently won’t be used to address the issue over the impasse.

“Regardless of that impasse, the federal government, the state government, and local government, are accountable to our residents. And we're accountable to the people,” Speirs said.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Technology and Entrepreneurship News Fund including The 80/20 Foundation, Digital Defense, Rackspace, The Elmendorf Family Fund, UTSA Center for Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship, SecureLogix, USAA and Giles Design Bureau.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive