To ensure that billions of federal dollars for rural broadband go to the country’s neediest areas, a federal agency has committed to allowing local review of new coverage maps before releasing funding from a major connectivity program created in the 2021 infrastructure law.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration said it will allow states and localities one round of revisions to forthcoming Federal Communications Commission maps of unserved areas before it allocates grants from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.

The move means it may be well into 2023 before internet providers, including electric cooperatives, see the financial assistance, which will include a minimum of $100 million to each state, a minimum of $25 million per territory and additional grants for qualifying communities.

The FCC is defining “unserved” areas as those with no access to high-speed internet service or with maximum internet speeds of 25 megabits per second for downloading data and 3 Mbps for uploading data.

NRECA said it hopes the additional deliberation in awarding BEAD grants will result in the neediest areas getting the money. Past broadband programs based on flawed FCC mapping allowed grant winners to bypass rural families and businesses.

“We have seen the negative impacts that bad data have on programs,” said Brian O’Hara, NRECA senior regulatory director for broadband and telecom. “So, while we would like the money to be awarded more quickly, we applaud NTIA’s decision to allow for one challenge round to clean up the data. Having the best data available is essential to the success of the BEAD program.”

More than 200 electric co-ops are deploying broadband, and that number is expected to double over the next few years.

NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson, in a discussion with the Internet Innovation Alliance, outlined the reasoning for this single challenge round. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure law is providing a “once in a generation opportunity” to achieve broadband for all and the maps will be “absolutely critical” to achieving that goal, he said.

“This is our shot at bridging the digital divide,” Davidson said. “We need to get this right.”

While previous FCC broadband maps could label an entire census block “served” even if only one home among thousands had internet access, the new maps will be built on more granular, location-by-location data from internet providers. Also, states and localities will have “at least one shot at kicking the tires,” he said.

“We’re going to work to make sure everybody has got that one shot before we allocate the money,” Davidson said.

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