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Federal government / Funding / Internet

How Virginia technologists developed the state’s broadband mapping tool

Thanks in part to the map developed by Virginia Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information, the commonwealth received $1.4 billion from the federal government to improve infrastructure.

The Commonwealth Connection map showing broadband access across Virginia, according to data collected by the state (red) and by the FCC (purple). (Courtesy image)

This editorial article is a part of Broadband Connectivity Month of Technical.ly's editorial calendar, underwritten by Verizon. Verizon is a Technical.ly Ecosystem Builder client.

After the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started drafting new guidance on creating a broadband coverage map back in 2020, the Commonwealth of Virginia decided to get ahead of the game and create a map of its own.

That’s according to Brandon Herndon, director of the Center for Geospatial Information Technology (CGIT) at Virginia Tech, which was involved in the state map’s creation. However, unlike the FCC’s map, which broadly reports coverage at a census block level, Virginia’s map reports at an address level. This was made possible after Virginia’s 2022 Budget Bill directed all broadband service providers to submit updated service territory data to the Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) Office of Broadband.

CGIT and the department then worked together to create and launch a mapping tool, Commonwealth Connection, in March 2022 showing broadband coverage in Virginia. The FCC released its first map in November 2022.

CGIT and DHCD have a period where they will collect data from providers, and then they update their Virginia map accordingly. The latest update was in March 2023.

The arrival of these maps come during a swell of national conversation about digital access, and funding its expansion. The federal Broadband Equity, Access and Development (BEAD) Program launched in 2021 as part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This program allocated $42.45 billion to be divided among states to improve broadband infrastructure, depending on the number of unserved locations each state had on the FCC’s map.

This past January, the commonwealth and FCC compared its maps, with the FCC identifying 180,000 locations with broadband access that weren’t present on Virginia’s map. Through arbitration, the FCC conceded about 80,000 locations. In June, the commonwealth received $1.4 billion in BEAD funding.

“[The Office of Broadband] said that our analysis probably resulted in about $250 million additional funds for Virginia,” Herndon said. “So, because Virginia was ahead of the game by a few years and collecting their own data, it really put Virginia in [a] good position to challenge the existing FCC map to get additional unserved locations in Virginia.”

Dr. Tamarah Holmes, director of DHCD’s Office of Broadband, said the Virginia BEAD funding “reaffirms our commitment to bringing affordable, reliable, high-speed internet to every unserved and underserved household, business and community anchor in the Commonwealth.”

“Because of the strides made under the [Virginia Telecommunication Initiative] program, BEAD funds will enable us to achieve universal broadband access in Virginia,” she said in a written statement when the funding was announced in June. “We can then turn our focus towards ending the digital divide in broadband affordability, digital literacy and full adoption of broadband services to make Virginia a state of digital opportunity.”

Now that Virginia has received its funding from BEAD, the map will no longer collect data at an address level. The latest update from March will be the last time address-level data is used.

See the Commonwealth Connection map

Companies: Federal Communications Commission (FCC) / U.S. Government
Series: Broadband Connectivity Month 2023
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