WESLACO, Texas – The Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council (LRGVDC) is urging cities across the region to write to the federal government and protest a proposed new National Broadband Map that shows the Valley as having excellent internet access.

The map, which offers household-level information on broadband availability and service, was issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). It was based on data provided by Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

If the map remains unaltered the Valley will not be able to access hundreds of millions of dollars to address the region’s huge digital divide.

“It’s a huge concern,” said Manuel “Manny” Cruz, executive director of LRGVDC. “The coverage map for the Lower Rio Grande Valley three county area… depicts 100% coverage with broadband. That is not an accurate depiction.”

Federal funding to improve broadband access is coming through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. A total of $42.5 billion is being allocated to the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program. Priority will be given to the most underserved communities.

“What this (map) means is that especially with those millions of dollars coming down the pike… that we don’t need any money from the federal government,” Cruz said.

Cruz said he is working with the Texas Association of Regional Councils to protest the new broadband map.

LRGVDC Secretary Jim Darling, a former mayor of McAllen, said every city across the Valley needs to write to the FCC. “Don’t assume that somebody else is going to do it for you. Everybody get on board and let them know this (map) is inaccurate.”

Cruz recommended cities get with their information technology staff to show the FCC that the new map is inaccurate. Darling said school districts probably have as much information as anyone on which homes have high-speed internet.

Rick Carrera, director of community and economic development for LRGVDC, also commented on the new map at the group’s December meeting.

“If you notice, they (FCC) consider broadband as 25 down and three up. Most cell phones will provide that and I know they differentiate between fixed and mobile. But, still, a lot of times what happens is they advertise speeds up to 25-3, that’s why they’re considered covered. But, as you all know, and I won’t mention my provider, but if I have speeds up to 100, that’s not going to happen at 6:30 in the evening. It will happen at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning when nobody else in the neighborhood is on.”

Carrera added: “So, I just want to throw that out there for everybody. Even more reason for y’all to do a deep dive on that and figure out where your coverages are and are not.”

The reason Cruz brought up the proposed new broadband map is because of correspondence he received from Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar.

Hegar oversees the state’s broadband development office. He has written to the FCC requesting an extension of the deadline for states and stakeholders to provide input on the accuracy of the proposed National Broadband Map.

“On Nov. 18, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its initial version of the national map, which displays location-by-location views of high-speed internet availability across the country, as reported by internet service providers (ISPs),” a news release from Hegar states.

“It gave state and local officials until Jan. 13, 2023, to challenge the map’s accuracy. The FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) play a critical role as federal partners in allocating Texas’ share of the $42.5 billion provided through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program.”

In a Dec. 13 letter to the FCC and NTIA offices, Hegar requested the federal government extend the deadline for states and individuals to file challenges to the national map by 60 days, to March 14, 2023; and to postpone release of the final map by 60 days, from May 15, 2023, to July 14, 2023.

“States and stakeholders need additional time to submit challenges to the proposed national map to provide critical, accurate information on the availability of broadband in their communities,” Hegar said. “This will ensure every dollar is fairly allocated using the most reliable data.”

The news release said Hegar is also asking the FCC and NTIA to postpone BEAD allocation announcements by 60 days so federal agencies may analyze and incorporate challenges to the national map. In addition, he is asking the federal government to align the BEAD award announcements with the release of the final map. 

Hegar said it is imperative that Texans participate in the challenge process in time for the FCC to include updated data in the final national map. He said any underestimation could potentially reduce Texas’ allocation by billions of dollars.

“This is clearly a flawed map,” Hegar said. “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.”

Hegar said some of the responsibility lies with Texas’ federal partners. He said they have assumed that public spaces like schools and libraries have access. “This is inaccurate and reveals a lack of understanding regarding the challenges facing many communities in Texas and other states,” Hegar said.

“I applaud all the hard work of so many trying to connect Texans and our nation, yet these issues are substantial hurdles that must be addressed to ensure we have accurate maps that support successful expansion of broadband access.”

Hegar said his office will work with stakeholders and local governments around the state to establish the best possible avenues for challenging broad inaccuracies through the bulk challenge process.

“But it is critical that individual Texans also engage in the challenge process to ensure the maps are as accurate as possible and funds are fairly allocated to areas that lack service.”

San Antonio-based Jordana Barton-Garcia has a consultancy firm that aims to advance digital equity for the common good. She was the first person to champion broadband in the Valley’s colonias in a book she wrote for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. She has also been recognized for helping the cities of Brownsville and Pharr develop their highly anticipated citywide broadband projects.

“The flawed maps and underlying assumptions of many of the rules limit competition – the root of the problem we’re trying to address,” Barton-Garcia said, in a commentary she posted on LinkedIn about a Texas Tribune story on Hegar’s letter to the FCC.

“The country was given 35 working days (with three national holidays in between) to follow the complicated rules to challenge the new FCC Broadband Maps. Thank you, Texas Comptroller Hegar, for calling this out and requesting more time.” 

Editor’s Note: Comptroller Hegar has set up a page on his website showing how to submit a challenge to the FCC’s proposed new National Broadband Map. Click here to view it.

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