Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
LUFKIN — More than $42 billion of federal funding for high-speed internet hinges on a map that state and local leaders say is “clearly” flawed.
Released last month, the map offers household-level information about who lacks access to reliable, high-speed internet. Now, as the deadline to dispute the accuracy of the nationwide map is quickly approaching, state Comptroller Glenn Hegar has asked the federal government for more time.
The Federal Communications Commission released the initial version of the map on Nov. 18 and gave local officials until Jan. 13, 2023, to challenge its accuracy. The map is available online and allows anyone to see location-by-location information about internet speeds and availability, as reported by internet service providers. Federal funding will be distributed based on which areas have the highest need according to the broadband map.
Snagging some of these funds will help Texas beef up broadband access, especially in rural areas that have gone underserved. Texas has lagged behind other states when it comes to broadband, and local officials, business leaders and residents say the dearth of access has held their regions back and made it difficult to compete in the 21st century economy.
In a Monday letter to the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Hegar — who oversees the state’s broadband development office — asked the federal government to postpone the deadline to challenge the broadband map by 60 days and to delay the scheduled release of the final map by another 60 days, until July 14 of next year.
“This is clearly a flawed map,” Hegar said in a statement. “Some of the responsibility lies with the service providers who are overstating the coverage they provide in their territories. This practice has become so routine that we often don’t notice it, but it will substantially limit competition as well as our ability to accurately allocate resources to those Texans whose access is inadequate.”
An NTIA spokesperson said they have received Hegar’s letter and are reviewing it.
“NTIA is committed to balancing the urgency of the moment with the need for accurate maps for funding allocation,” the spokesperson said.
In 2021, Congress allocated a historic $65 billion to expand high-speed internet access through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Of that funding, $42.45 billion will be available as grant funding to states and territories to help expand access to high-speed internet.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2.8 million Texas households lack broadband access. A disproportionate number of those are in rural areas, where a low population density dissuades private companies from setting up broadband infrastructure.
It’s those very communities that some advocates say are misrepresented in the broadband map.
Dustin Fawcett, Ector County judge-elect, said the map appears to be accurate for Odessa, the county seat with a population of 112,483, but seems to overstate broadband access in outlying, less-populated areas.
“The reality of what the service providers are telling us and the reality on the ground do not match up,” Fawcett said. “The map may say that you have the option to access the internet, but it’s not at the speeds advertised, and it’s not at a price tag that’s feasible.”
Fawcett said that he has spoken to several Ector County residents whose broadband speeds are significantly slower than what is represented on the maps. Others, he said, may have access to the internet but at unaffordable prices, sometimes up to $300 per month.
Some local leaders said the process to dispute the accuracy of the maps is unclear and inaccessible.
Individuals can submit challenges directly through the map interface. But accessing the map interface requires internet access, leaving households without access unable to submit a challenge.
“How can I go online to challenge the map if I don’t have access to the map?” said Lonnie Hunt, executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments and a longtime advocate for rural internet infrastructure. “Once again, it’s kind of an example where the people who need it the most are least equipped to challenge it.”
Hunt said he is pleased that Hegar has asked the federal government for more time to challenge the maps, which he believes are inaccurate. He said he would use that time to try to submit a “bulk challenge,” a process by which local governments can dispute multiple locations at once.
Hunt said he has been discussing this possibility with an engineering company that could help the region put together the bulk challenge.
“The process to challenge the maps is not simple or easy, and our local communities just do not have the capacity to take that on,” Hunt said. “We are trying to marshal resources to provide a challenge, but we need more time and, honestly, we need the state to take the lead.”
The state’s Broadband Development Office, which is managed by the comptroller, was created by the Texas Legislature in 2021.