To Infinity and Beyond: The New Broadband Map Has Landed!

Cite this Article
Eric Fruits, To Infinity and Beyond: The New Broadband Map Has Landed!, Truth on the Market (June 02, 2023),

Announced with the sort of breathless press release one might expect for the launch of a new product like Waystar Royco’s Living+, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has gone into full-blown spin mode over its latest broadband map.

This is, to be clear, the map that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will use to allocate $42.5 billion to states from NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program. Specific allocations are expected to be announced by June 30.

According to FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, the new map is “light years better” than the last round. A light year is 5.88 trillion miles, or enough to circle the earth more than 236 million times, so that must be quite an improvement. But then the FCC’s release proceeds to walk that claim back, with the assertion that the latest map is merely “another step forward” in an “iterative effort” to develop accurate broadband maps.

To be fair, the new map is a substantial improvement. According to Fierce Telecom, the latest map attempts to identify every household and small business in the country that should have access to high-speed internet service. While this requires granular data down to the level of individual street addresses, earlier versions were limited to U.S. Census block information. The new location-based map has identified more than 114 million locations where fixed broadband could be installed, while prior maps had information for 8.1 million Census blocks.

The biggest attention-grabbing factoid from the FCC is that “[m]ore than 8.3 million U.S. homes and businesses lack access to high-speed broadband.” This figure is at odds with Census surveys that indicate roughly 3 million households don’t have at-home Internet access. Perhaps “and businesses” is doing a lot of that heavy lifting in the new claim.

Telecompetitor reports that the 8.3 million number is, according to an FCC spokesperson, based on the NTIA’s definition of “unserved.” Under this definition, connections with speeds less than 25/3 Mbps are considered to be “unserved” by broadband. In addition, the NTIA considers locations with connections of greater than 25/3 Mbps to be “unserved” if the service is available only from a fixed wireless provider that uses unlicensed spectrum.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) has a more optimistic take on the map’s access estimates, arguing that:

[T]he FCC’s new broadband map tells the success story of the vibrant and growing ISP broadband industry — one working 24/7/365 to almost halve the number of unserved locations since 2020.  Down from nearly 14 million unserved to 8 million today.

In addition to the map’s detail of unserved locations, tech journalist Mike Conlow has calculated there are 3.6 million homes that are underserved (i.e., with speeds of less than 100/20 Mbps). His Substack account provides downloadable spreadsheets that are worth checking out.

PCMag suggests one noteworthy change from the last maps is a 50% downgrade in Starlink’s reported speeds. This is a well-known issue. Last year, the FCC rejected Starlink’s application to receive nearly $900 million in broadband funding, citing doubts that the company could provide the grant’s required speeds of 100/20 Mbps.

Writing in Broadband Breakfast, Tom Reid concludes that, despite the improvements, the new maps inflate the availability and speed of many locations:

Broadband improvements have been constrained for decades by inaccurate maps, yet the Federal Communications Commission continues to accept dramatically exaggerated availability and capacity claims from internet service providers. The cumbersome challenge process requires consumers and units of government to prove a negative—a logical fallacy.

Similarly, Joe Valandra, CEO of the Native American-owned firm Tribal Ready, notes that tribal data historically has been excluded or misinterpreted in broadband maps. He urged tribal governments to gather broadband-coverage data for the state mapping process to support grants under the BEAD program.

Based on the short period of time between the latest map’s release and the expected timing of BEAD grants to the states, it’s likely that the allocation of the BEAD funds has already been—or will soon be—established.


It is, of course, always difficult to read the tea leaves, but there are some important things to watch out for as the BEAD process moves forward. There are going to be complaints in various directions: missing locations, locations that don’t exist, incorrect speed data. Nevertheless, the results we have seen thus far are largely in line with what I and my colleagues have been writing for years: about 5-7% of U.S. households are unserved.

On the one hand, public policy has been guided by a reasonable assumption that a small but significant share of the population would benefit from improved (or any) internet access. On the other hand, the latest map reinforces the point we’ve made consistently, which is that much of the story around broadband takeup (rather than access) is focused on that last hardcore of nonadopters. Even when service is available, some households will not adopt at any price.

Going forward, the next big challenge will be to make sure the huge wash of BEAD funding isn’t dissipated by waste, fraud, and abuse. Since these are block grants to the states, it will be very easy to lose sight of how the money is spent across the country. Spending that money well will be critical to closing the digital divide.