In a battle between digital maps, Virginia Tech bested the Federal Communications Commission to show the commonwealth’s broadband needs.
The prize: an additional $250 million in federal money to help fill those high-speed internet voids.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced plans last week to deploy networks in places where the state lacks broadband. With those plans in place, the state can access a $1.48 billion federal allocation. That total would have been a quarter-billion dollars less without Virginia Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology, according to the university.
Two staff members from the center handled the project, coordinating with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s Office of Broadband.
“They did some great work,” said Brandon Herndon, the center’s director.
The Center for Geospatial Information Technology, or CGIT, is part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources. Herndon said that the center has been collecting broadband information for the state for about the past two years to build a mapping tool for the housing department’s broadband office.
The tool, which shows the digital divide, is called Commonwealth Connection, and the geospatial map more accurately reflects the commonwealth’s needs via 3.8 million street addresses, as opposed to the federal method of reporting by census block, according to the university.
With a federal deadline looming, the Department of Housing and Community Development contacted the geospatial IT center in early January, asking it to compare the latest Commonwealth Connection map with the FCC’s national broadband map.
By mid-month, the Virginia Tech team had calculated that the FCC had undercounted by 180,000 underserved locations and challenged the numbers. The FCC conceded about 80,000, just in time to make them part of the 2021 federal Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, or BEAD.
The commonwealth will use the $1.48 billion to reach an estimated 160,000 residences, businesses and such public institutions as schools, libraries, hospitals and safety organizations that are not yet in a broadband deployment project area, according to Youngkin’s news release. The Commonwealth Connection map shows that large rural swaths across the state are lacking access. About 66% of rural residents and about 84% of non-rural Virginians have broadband options, according to the state health department’s Rural Health Plan 2022-2026.
The BEAD process and application window will open in October and continue through summer 2023, according to Alexis Carey, spokeswoman for Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. The department expects to announce awards between late summer and early fall of next year, Carey wrote in an email.
Virginia is the first state in the country to release the documents — a five-year plan and volume two of the state’s initial proposal — necessary to access the federal money, according to the news release. State officials received 20 percent of the total already, after its first initial proposal was approved, according to a housing and community development department document.
Virginia’s mapping project dates to March 2020, when the federal Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act opened the way for new and more detailed digital plots. The following April, the Virginia General Assembly and then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe approved funding for the state’s own map, based on federal standards but scheduled to be available sooner than the FCC’s, according to Virginia Tech. The law required address-level data, and CGIT began applying the information to a map it had hosted for a dozen years, which had been housing FCC data but now would go deeper.
The FCC had been collecting its own data and this January announced that it was allowing states to challenge it, Herndon said. The Department of Housing and Community Development’s broadband office reached out to CGIT.
“This partnership played a crucial role in equipping Virginia to rectify federal broadband maps, ensuring the Commonwealth received BEAD funding and accurately mapped unserved and underserved areas across the state,” Carey wrote.
The state’s map relied in part on broadband providers submitting information, which CGIT mapped to specific locations.
“Good on Virginia for … requiring broadband providers to submit this information to us a few years before this request came down, and also good on Virginia for maintaining an aggregated parcel map [showing property boundaries] of the entire state,” Herndon said. “So we have parcel boundaries that addresses are connected to, primarily through the emergency 911 efforts in the state to modernize parcel boundaries and emergency response.”
A key issue dividing the two data sets: The FCC map was based on location fabric, a set of latitude and longitude locations of what the commission considered “broadband serviceable” locations that an outside vendor had gathered.
“The issue is that in the public domain this information is proprietary and protected, and also does not match up one-to-one with parcels or address locations,” Herndon said. “It’s really not an apples-to-apples comparison.”
The CGIT team downloaded the FCC information, then the center’s Joseph Newman and Matthew Pierson wrote code to compare and contrast. Over about five days, they did test runs over ever-larger portions of Virginia and developed a code that was accurate statewide, Herndon said.
“We looked at everything, but … unlicensed fixed wireless, and we did not look at satellite, either, because those aren’t considered a viable broadband service, per BEAD allocation, anyway,” he said.
The BEAD program will provide $42.45 billion nationwide to expand high-speed internet access. It will fund planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs, according to the Youngkin news release. The Department of Housing and Community Development will administer Virginia’s portion.
The housing department will accept public comment on the BEAD Initial Proposal Vol. 2 through Sept. 19 by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Problems remain with the FCC coverage map, Herndon said. Its BEAD job finished, CGIT is developing a challenge portal that organizations including nonprofits, internet service providers and local governments may use to help the FCC further improve its map.