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Vermont's challenge to FCC broadband map is not going well

A photo of a person reaching up to a giant spool on a truck bed. There are five large spools on the bed.
Ellie de Villiers
Vermont Community Broadband Board, Courtesy
A worker unloads spools of high-speed fiber near the offices of Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom in Waitsfield.

When John Fedor-Cunningham saw the map showing the estimated broadband coverage across Vermont, he knew there were mistakes in the federal data.

The Federal Communications Commission issued the nationwide map to help direct more than $42 billion in broadband construction aid, which was included in the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program Congress passed last year.

The FCC is using the map to decide who gets the money.

Areas of the country that don’t have robust coverage, according to the map, gets extra funding. So Fedor-Cunningham, who lives in Orwell, knew it was important to get the data right.

“When I found out that the FCC had maps of what service was actually provided, I was very curious to see,” Fedor-Cunningham said. “And when I went and looked at my house and my neighbor’s house, and I found that GoNetspeed had submitted data saying that my house for a DSL line was getting 25 down and 3 up, I was flabbergasted.”

Fedor-Cunningham's challenge was one among the thousands filed by the state and by individual Vermonters, to the data in the FCC map

Explore the map in full here.

GoNetspeed is the internet service provider that serves the community in Addison County where Fedor-Cunningham lives.

The company did not answer an email sent by Vermont Public.

And it is companies like GoNetspeed that are telling the FCC how strong the broadband service is in the areas they serve.

Fedor-Cunningham says late last year, he heard from the FCC that his challenge was rejected, even though he says he can’t stream a movie at his house if his mother is trying to do a conference call with her family at the same time.

“I am extremely frustrated, because it seems like the FCC is working for GoNetspeed, and probably for the other telecoms, instead of for citizens and customers,” he said. “It’s government for business rather than government for the people.”

“I am extremely frustrated, because it seems like the FCC is working for GoNetspeed, and probably for the other telecoms, instead of for citizens and customers. It’s government for business rather than government for the people.”
John Fedor-Cunningham, Orwell resident

When the FCC first released its map in November, the Vermont Community Broadband Board sent out a memo to get Vermonters to look up their address, and tell the FCC if there were mistakes in the data.

The board estimates that each mistake means Vermont will get $5,000 less from the federal government.

So Vermonters just like Fedor-Cunningham got involved.

They told the FCC that the service at their home was not what their company claimed, and for a while there was hope that all of this public involvement would lead to tens of millions of dollars in additional federal assistance for Vermont’s ambitious broadband buildout.

More from Vermont Public: State calls on Vermonters to help correct federal broadband map

Vermont Community Broadband Board Deputy Director Rob Fish says that is not the way things are working out.

“We’ve done our due diligence. We are impressed with the team that came together to submit all these challenges,” Fish said. “But it’s going to come down to an interpretation that, from what we’ve seen so far, is very much stacked in favor of existing providers.”

About half of the original approximately 45,000 complaints were withdrawn by the state because they did not meet FCC guidelines, and Fish says the larger telecom companies are pushing back on most of the complaints.

Each public dollar that comes into the state means there will be stronger and cheaper broadband service, and that will mean more competition for the larger companies.

So Fish says he has low expectations about how the challenge process will roll out in the coming months.

“Companies want to defend what their footprint is now, or what they think their footprint is going to be,” Fish said. “It’s all about money. It’s all about competition. By saying that an address is already served and there’s less money coming from the state, it’s less competition they’re going to face.”

“It’s all about money. It’s all about competition. By saying that an address is already served, and there’s less money coming from the state, it’s less competition they’re going to face.”
Rob Fish, Vermont Community Broadband Board

A spokesperson for Comcast said the company was "committed to working with stakeholders across Vermont to ensure the funding that Congress appropriated to get broadband in truly unserved areas gets rolled out and the deployment divide is solved. We believe the FCC’s Broadband Data Collection (BDC) mapping process is working.”

In a written statement, FCC spokesperson Anne Veigle said: “State governments can challenge the Fabric to correct or add location information, and separately can also challenge provider availability data. Due to the ongoing process of integrating and updating data, the Commission is currently not providing information on the status of fabric or availability challenges.”

Sen. Peter Welch said in a written statement Wednesday that the Vermont delegation has been encouraging the FCC — as well as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — to change this process.

Without corrections to current FCC maps, he added, Vermonters are going to lose out on "essential" money to increase broadband access in the most rural parts of the state.

"[A]s a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, I’ll keep fighting until this process better reflects Vermonters’ experiences and helps our communities get the funding they need," Welch said. “The Vermont Community Broadband Board continues to challenge inaccurate data in the FCC’s broadband maps, and I have every confidence that they will pursue all avenues to ensure Vermonters can access this necessary funding."

The Vermont Community Broadband Board has been meeting with some of the larger telecom companies to go over the bulk challenges, which is where a group of homes all say they’re being underserved.

“FCC standards don’t take into account the geography and topography of Vermont,” said Vermont Community Broadband Board Communications Coordinator Herryn Herzog. “And FCC doesn’t take into account the age of copper or capacity of DSL networks, all of which result in [Vermonters'] experience being different than what the providers report.”

The FCC is expected to finalize the map data in the next few months, and the BEAD money will begin to be distributed this summer.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Corrected: March 23, 2023 at 6:37 AM EDT
This post was corrected to more accurately report why the state withdrew half of its complaints.
Updated: March 22, 2023 at 5:13 PM EDT
This post has been updated with comments from Sen. Peter Welch.
Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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