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Millions at stake as South Dakota providers review new federal broadband map

South Dakota coverage of wired internet access capable of 100 mb/s download speeds using the FCC's new mapping process, released November 2022.

South Dakota internet providers are working to review a new broadband coverage map that will be used to allocate millions in infrastructure grants.

The map, which was released this November, is intended to address longstanding criticisms of the Federal Communication Commission’s previous mapping process.

The old map relied on data reported by the internet service providers themselves, leading to accusations that companies like Comcast and Time Warner overstate internet coverage in their filings. Mike Waldner directs the Connect South Dakota program in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. He claims those issues aren’t prevalent in South Dakota, where 80% of the state is served by small co-ops and municipal organizations he calls “trusted providers.”

The FCC's draft broadband coverage map focused on the South Dakota State Capitol. Each green dot represents a broadband serviceable location (a place where internet could be provided).

But Waldner also noted previous maps relied on census block-level data, meaning an entire block is considered covered if service is provided to a single address.

“There could be 20 miles of area [where] it's reported that they all have 100-megabit download [speeds], when maybe only one of them actually does,” he said.

The new national map was created from tens of millions of individual data points, each representing a location where the internet could be provided. The location points were generated by a federal vendor using satellite imagery, and their accuracy has come under scrutiny by state and federal officials.

The FCC is seeking challenges from local internet service providers, state and local governments, and individuals.

Waldner said, unlike other states, the South Dakota government is not directly challenging the draft map.

“It doesn't make sense for the state of South Dakota to challenge an area of a provider [when] we know that provider’s already going to make that challenge,” he said. “Who knows those areas better than the provider themselves?”

Midstate service area
South Dakota Telecommunications Association
Midstate Communications (dark brown) serves approximately 44,000 customers in south-central South Dakota.

Chad Mutziger is CEO of Midstate Communications, a telecommunications cooperative based in Kimball. He said Midstate has already issued its first round of challenges to the map.

“They might have a dot at a location that really isn't a broadband serviceable location. For example, it might be a dilapidated barn,” Mutziger said. “There's also areas that don't have a dot, so you have to give them that and say 'Hey, here's a broadband serviceable location that you don't show.’”

Mutziger said mapping rural areas produce unique challenges. Sheds, silos and barns were filtered from the initial data points, but Mutziger argues those structures shouldn’t necessarily be ruled out.

“A grain bin, is that a broadband serviceable location to us? I would say yes, it is because more and more with smart farming and technology, more of these places are having internet service that didn't before,” he said. “Making sure all those get included in there is a challenge.”

Another challenge with the map is the amount of work required to review each location on the draft map.

“It can be tasking, especially for small ISPs,” Mutziger said. “We don't have extra employees sitting around, just waiting to do [mapping] filings and challenges, so we have to take them off of other projects.”

According to Mutziger, the new map is a “working document” that will become more accurate with time. Next summer, it will be used to determine allocations for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) grant program, which was created under the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

South Dakota has already received $3.1 million to develop a broadband infrastructure plan under BEAD and will eventually receive the $100 million baseline allocation granted to each state.

The new map will be used to determine future BEAD grants, which Waldner said could potentially be “from 180 to 220 million dollars.”

Corrections must be submitted by January 13 to affect BEAD allocations. Waldner said the timeline doesn’t give stakeholders enough time to review and issue corrections to the draft map.

“The main issue is not so much that the FCC maps are wrong, we all know that,” said Waldner, whose office will eventually administer the BEAD grants. “The issue is that the NTIA is going to use them to allocate 42.5 billion dollars to the states, very well knowing they are wrong.”

Waldner emphasized the role individuals can play in improving the map.

“Citizens themselves, who know their location better than anybody, they can go in and they can make a challenge to this map,” he said. “If it shows a provider that claims gigabit speeds and they're not able to get that, they can challenge it. Or if their address is wrong, the address isn't correct, they can challenge that as well.”

The draft map can be viewed and challenged on the FCC’s website.

Slater Dixon is a junior at Augustana University studying Government and Data Science. He was born in Sioux Falls and is based out of SDPB's Sioux Falls studio.