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Utah Crushes Broadband Challenge through Collaboration

Author · Jake Adams
Published · Mar 3, 2023
Last modified · Mar 20, 2024
Category · UGRC
Read time · 5 min

From the I Challenge You to a Duel department

Among the many lessons the Covid-19 pandemic taught us, we learned two things about high-speed internet. First, high download and upload speeds are necessities in the modern world. Second, figuring out what high-speed internet was available in our neighborhood was a more difficult task than it should be.

Unfortunately, this second problem isn’t new—state and federal governments have been struggling with poor broadband availability data for years. While the FCC required providers to report coverage, using census blocks as the base geography made it nigh impossible to get an accurate and fine-grained picture. Without accurate data, governments have struggled to direct resources and policy to areas that are lacking coverage or the competition necessary for free market economics to benefit the consumer, who otherwise suffer slow speeds and high prices.

There’s a bright light on the horizon. In 2019, the FCC voted, opens in a new tab to collect more granular data and hopefully improve some of the long-standing problems, opens in a new tab with the existing system. As part of these efforts, the FCC wants to use state and local governments’ local knowledge by inviting them to submit corrections to the Broadband Data Collection process.

Utah responded to this invitation through a collaboration between UGRC, the Utah Broadband Center, opens in a new tab, and county GIS departments. This cooperation and collaboration resulted in Utah having, by far, the largest number of corrections accepted across the nation. This would not have been possible without the hard work (on a tight deadline) of the counties who were able to participate. Our timely participation ensures Utah will get its fair share of the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment funding distributed by the federal government.

We express a heart-felt Thank You! to Box Elder, Weber, Tooele, Salt Lake, Utah, Summit, and Wayne counties for participating on such short notice. With their help we were able to gather over 110,000 challenges, with over 48,000 ultimately being accepted: 24,598 new locations and 23,491 corrected addresses.

Utah had by far the most accepted challenges

Source: X-Lab (PSU), via the Marconi Society

The Collection Process: Every Program Needs Acronyms

The work behind the FCC’s new broadband map, opens in a new tab has been christened the Broadband Data Collection, opens in a new tab, or BDC for short. There are two critical pieces to the BDC: (1) a “fabric” of Broadband Serviceable Locations (BSLs) and (2) the actual availability data that is built on top of the BSLs.

While the map will support decision making for years to come, there’s also a more immediate need. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will be making its state-level allocations of the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, opens in a new tab based on the data in the map.

Yards and Yards of Fabric

The fabric is the basis of the BDC, opens in a new tab, the foundation that everything elses is built upon. It is “a dataset of all locations … where fixed broadband internet access service is or could be installed.” These Broadband Serviceable Locations are meant to capture every single structure in the country that should be part of the broadband conversation.

The FCC tackled the daunting challenge of identifying every single broadband serviceable structure in the country by hiring a third party contractor, CostQuest, to develop and maintain the fabric. CostQuest uses aerial imagery-based machine learning combined with publicly available parcel, address, and other datasets, opens in a new tab to identify BSLs. The first version of the fabric was released in June of 2022, and updated versions are being released every six months.

Challenge Accepted…?

As part of the update process, the FCC allows governments, providers, and individuals to suggest improvements to the fabric in what they call a challenge, opens in a new tab. These corrections can be missing BSLs, incorrect addresses, BSLs not located on their corresponding structure, that sort of thing.

Fabric challenges have to follow a very specific format and must reach a certain level of evidence and defensibility before CostQuest will add them to the fabric. While they give local governments a large amount of deference for local knowledge, they still perform a range of automated checks on the challenge submissions before accepting them as BSLs.

The Utah Broadband Center worked with UGRC to prepare and submit a state-wide fabric challenge on behalf of the counties throughout the state. We provided technical assistance to make sure the challenges were formatted correctly and met the technical specifications. This created a buffer between the FCC bureaucracy and the local experts at the county level, allowing them to spend their limited time on the work that really matters.

Time’s A-Ticking

While the fabric will be updated twice a year, this first challenge period was vital for the BEAD distribution process. In early September 2022, NTIA announced they would use the second version of the fabric as the basis for BEAD allocation in order to give states the opportunity to submit a challenge to the “rough draft” first version of the fabric. Then the FCC clarified that they would incorporate any challenges submitted by November 1st into the second version of the fabric.

This seven-week window to get our challenges into the second version was the biggest hurdle in the challenge process. The Utah Broadband Center sent an invitation to both the counties and the tribal governments to participate in this last-minute effort. The invite included our brief analysis of the fabric compared against our statewide address points along with some template datasets and instructions to help them prepare their challenges if they had the time and resources.

Collaboration Creates A Concrete Challenge to Confer Communications Capital

We are thrilled at the responses we received from the counties despite the short notice. Even though there was only a handful of counties that were able to reallocate their limited resources, Utah submitted more challenges, and had more challenges accepted, than any other state in the nation. This speaks highly of the skill of the county GIS staffers and the quality of their data.

Collaboration is the hallmark of the GIS community in Utah—it created and maintains the SGID, one of the premier state-level geospatial resources. And, with this project, collaboration has helped ensure Utahns’ homes are counted when it comes to broadband.