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How Georgia Made Its Unique Broadband Coverage Map

States, counties and cities across the country have noted the inaccuracy of broadband coverage data from the Federal Communications Commission, but Georgia took a more proactive route.

For some time, it’s been no secret that the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 data overestimates broadband coverage in the United States. In response, Georgia took matters into its own hands. Last week, a news report indicated that the state had completed maps for three counties — Elbert, Lumpkin and Tift — that showed just how off current FCC data is.  

The maps were the result of a pilot carried out by the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative (GBDI), which is part of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. The plan is to complete a location-level map, which will reveal more detail than the FCC’s census block-level map, for the entire state in 2020. 

“To our knowledge, no other state government has developed a location-level broadband availability map,” GBDI director Deana Perry said in an email to Government Technology. “The reason Georgia developed this approach is due to statutory requirements, which put a deadline of January 2019 where the Department of Community Affairs had to evaluate the FCC broadband maps and if that data and maps would allow the state to identify unserved census blocks.”

The project started about six months ago, Perry said, and involved two main processes. First, the state team built a database of all residential and business locations within the three counties. To do this, the team reached out to both county and municipal governments to acquire data on all current addresses, whether addresses were residential or business and whether structures were single- or multi-unit. 

Second, the state had to reach agreements with seven broadband providers to obtain data on locations that receive broadband service in Elbert, Lumpkin and Tift counties. During these engagements, the state explained the process and method to the providers and answered questions as they came up, Perry explained. 

Getting the location data for the new maps is a significant undertaking, as many states do not have an existing master location database. The sheer number of locations in a state can be daunting to consider. In Georgia, that total amounts to more than five million locations, Perry said. 

Additionally, broadband providers also need time and resources to identify locations with FCC-defined broadband service (25 Mbps/3 Mbps). In the email, Perry explained that “unserved” locations were defined as those “where no provider could fill an order within 10 business days.” 

Perry said Georgia’s approach to the map, in terms of data and methodology, is similar to that of a United States Telecom Association-sponsored demonstration project that is examining broadband coverage for locations in Missouri and Virginia. 

The push for more accurate broadband coverage maps is not merely a data issue. When official information implies that broadband availability is present when it is not, it can penalize places that might need money for broadband expansion. 

“And where that [FCC data] is problematic is those maps are used for funding purposes,” Perry said  in an Associated Press report. “So if you are considered served, but when you, in fact, aren’t, you won’t be eligible for those funds at the federal level.”

The state is working to deal with the impact of this funding issue.

“[A] statute [in Georgia] also directed the Department of Community Affairs [DCA] to develop state grant program rules by June of 2019,” she said in the email. “In the state grant program rules, a census block designated by DCA as unserved becomes eligible for a state grant program.”

The state has informed the FCC about its mapping project and pilot results. She added that the state plans to complete the map on a total budget of $2 million.

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.