The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has officially contracted CostQuest Associates (CQA) to deliver the nation's broadband serviceable location fabric (BSLF). The news comes as the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied a protest brought by real estate data analytics company LightBox challenging the FCC's award to CQA.
In a press release, CostQuest said it will deliver the first version of the broadband serviceable location fabric to the FCC "later this year."
Last week, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel confirmed that broadband providers will have between June 30 and September 1, 2022, to supply the agency with their coverage data.
That data, along with other datasets, will be overlaid on CostQuest's broadband location serviceable fabric. The result will be the official federal map defining broadband connectivity and access in the US.
GAO said no
CostQuest was initially awarded the $45 million contract for the nation's broadband serviceable location fabric in November. But a protest was brought by LightBox – another bidder for the contract. That action stopped the FCC from moving forward with CostQuest for three months while the GAO was required to consider LightBox's protest.
The GAO denied the protest on February 24.
"Congress made a historic commitment to funding the closing of the Digital Divide, and part of that commitment included providing accurate data to support the efficient spending of public funds," said Jim Stegeman, CostQuest's president and CEO, in a statement. "The unfortunate delay in the start of this project will not keep us from delivering the quality data that supports giving Americans access to advanced broadband service."
'Key element' not considered
Whether this is the end of the broadband map drama at the federal level remains to be seen.
In a conversation with Broadband World News on Friday, Eric Frank, CEO of LightBox, said the company "obviously disagreed" with the decision but was not in a position to specifically comment since the GAO had not made the explanation of its decision public.
However, Frank added that further action could be taken by LightBox, noting "a key element of our protest was not considered" by GAO.
"We're intent on ensuring that gets adjudicated somewhere," he said.
Indeed, LightBox still has the option to contest the GAO's decision at the US Court of Federal Claims – an action that could further delay the FCC's efforts to move forward with CostQuest.
In an emailed response to Broadband World News, Kenneth E. Patton, managing associate general counsel for the GAO, said that while the office "considers and reviews all protest issues" that consideration "does not mean that our written decisions will specifically address every protest contention that a party raises."
Further, he added: "We will only address in a written decision those issues required to resolve the protest, which often times does not require specifically addressing each protest issue advanced by a party."
In terms of the GAO's explanation of its decision, Patton said attorneys for both parties are reviewing it for publication. "We are still working with the parties to prepare a public version and once that process is complete, we will post the decision on GAO's public website."
Why this matters
There's a great deal of urgency throughout Washington and the industry to move forward with the FCC's broadband map. As the US sets out to close its digital divide, with $65 billion appropriated for broadband in the Biden administration's infrastructure law, it can only do that if it knows where the divide exists.
Currently, the FCC's broadband map – which relies on Form 477 data and an outdated broadband definition of 25/3 Mbit/s – is understood to undercount the digital divide by several million households.
The new FCC map will be the basis for states to apply for billions of dollars in broadband grants through the NTIA. But the delay in getting it built, or starting the process, has been a source of angst in congressional hearings for months.
In November, at her Senate hearing for confirmation as FCC chairwoman, Jessica Rosenworcel fielded myriad questions about how quickly the agency could produce the map.
Agreeing on the urgency of the project, Rosenworcel confirmed that the FCC had awarded a contract for the map – but she also stated she may need Senators' help to move quickly through the process should a protest arise.
"We are doing everything possible to encourage the GAO to move fast if there's a protest but if we have problems I might ask for you and this committee's assistance because we absolutely need to get those maps done, because all of the money that is flowing through the infrastructure bill depends on them being available," she said.
— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.