WINSTON COUNTY - Local officials cite inadequate digital mapping as the reason why some rural areas of Winston County show that they have high speed internet service when in reality there is little to none.
This problem was expressed by multiple officials at a recent public meeting conducted by Steve Foshee, CEO of Tombigbee Electric Coop, who met with Haleyville Mayor Ken Sunseri, Winston County Commission Chairman Roger Hayes, Winston County Commissioner Bobby Everett and Double Springs Mayor Elmo Robinson at the courtroom of Haleyville City Hall.
“The Federal Communication Commission, which is the overseer of broadband, they have gradually raised their definition (for high speed internet). They were at 10 (megabytes per second download speed) and one (megabyte per second upload speed),” Foshee explained. “Now they have raised it to 25/3. It’s our opinion, from a practical perspective, that is way too low. Let’s get away from 25/3. Let’s move up higher.”
The areas which already have 25 down and three up, as defined by the FCC, do not qualify for funding for higher speed broadband service, Foshee pointed out.
The internet has become a more valuable tool than ever before, not just connecting homes with high speed internet service, but also giving students a platform to do remote or virtual learning. About 20 percent of students in both Haleyville City and Winston County’s school systems have elected to do remote learning in place of traditional classroom instruction the first nine weeks of school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In order to provide internet service in many remote areas, where students will be learning, the Winston County School district has provided 12 buses equipped with Wi-Fi and possibly boosters. Three of these 12 buses will be used for students attending Haleyville City Schools. Students can pull up in parking lots in remote areas, including churches, community centers or fire departments, and do the online platform from their vehicles using the available Wi-Fi from the buses.
Haleyville Mayor Ken Sunseri noted the data the FCC has when it comes to mapping out areas in need of internet service is inadequate.
“I have recommended that all of our legislators contact ADECA (Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs) and have the service providers provide the information on where they are saying they have high speed internet,” Sunseri pointed out.
Most internet customers have no more than 10 megabytes per second download speed, compared to the FCC standard of 25/3.
ADECA is currently asking residents to log on to alabama.speedsurvey.org to help the state locate gaps in broadband service. Once logging on and filling out some minimal information, the website will conduct an internet speed test on the computer or other device being used to take the survey, using those results to help show what true speeds are in the area where the survey was taken.
“It’s important everyone fills out this survey because when it comes time for funding, we are showing areas that do not have high speed internet, yet the FCC maps are showing them as having high speed internet,” Sunseri pointed out.
In fact, the mayor stressed, the FCC showed two years ago that Haleyville had high speed internet when at the time it did not.
“We never had high-speed internet until Freedom Fiber came to town,” he said.
“The FCC makes a determination on funding,” Sunseri continued. “They are looking at areas they are thinking are serviced, and those areas are not eligible for funding. That’s one of the fallacies we have because most of these areas, especially in rural communities, do not have high speed internet.”
“This has been going on for years. This is not something that just happened overnight,” Sunseri said. “Those maps have been incorrect for a long, long time.”
Winston County Commission Chairman Roger Hayes noted sections of the county have been struggling not only with internet service, but inadequate mapping showing true areas where gaps in service are located.
“They need to go back and do an adequate count,” Hayes stressed. “I don’t know what it is going to take, but somebody has got to get on top of it.
“If they are going to get an accurate count, change the way we can spend the money,” Hayes said. “We have some good projects this money needs to be spent on. They are going to have to change one or the other.
“It seems to be inadequate,” Hayes pointed out. “I don’t know how they come over and determine which areas get what on internet. I don’t know how that works.
“There were people listed as having 25/3, when they were actually one and a half and nothing. That tells you right there, that the FCC has not done a good job preparing what actual internet not only in our county, but other counties (have). I am sure other counties have been done this way,” Hayes pointed out.
“They couldn’t spend a million and a half (dollars) in our county because it had been inadequately (funded). The FCC says we have 25 and 3...It’s not. They haven’t tested enough. They haven’t gone in there and checked enough,” Hayes pointed out.
“It has really hurt our area,” he added. “If we can get some of this corrected, it will help some other county or some other part of our county.”
U.S. Congressman Robert Aderholt noted the internet mapping situation needs to be addressed.
“The need for access to high speed internet is so important, a fact that has been made even more urgent by the current pandemic,” Aderholt said.
“I’ve been championing this need in Congress for three years and now even more of my colleagues are onboard with this expansion than ever before.
“But,” the congressman stressed, “in order for this to happen, local leaders, utility companies and service providers have to have access to accurate data and mapping.
“I’m ready to help any way I can to make sure there is access to this information,” the Congressman concluded.
Based on the concern regarding inadequate mapping brought up during the recent meeting, the Alabamian reached out to Anne Veigle, deputy director with the office of media relations for the FCC, for an explanation regarding the digital mapping situation.
All mapping done by the FCC is known as FCC Form 477, which is a form every internet service provider--cable, fiber, DSL, satellite, mobile wireless--uses. These internet service providers must report data kept by the U.S. Census Bureau for mapping purposes.
Under FCC current rules, service providers report a census block as served, and as long as they are providing service to at least several locations within that census block, it does not necessarily have to be the entire block, FCC officials said.
“There is a potential to overstate coverage there to a degree,” one FCC official conceded. “Especially in rural areas such as Winston County, census blocks can be quite large, and providers may very well be providing service in one half of the census block, but not the other half,” the official said.
When it comes to rural broadband funding, the actions listed above creates a tough problem because only so much funding is available, the official said.
Areas that appear underserved mean that no internet service provider has reported serving in a census block that is reported available for funding, the FCC continued.
Winston County currently has about 150 census blocks, which cover about 4,200 homes and businesses, the FCC official further stated. The FCC is currently in the process of updating their 477 maps due to their lack of accuracy, which leads to having the appearance of more internet coverage than actually exists.
The revamping of the maps will allow the FCC to better know internet service by more specific locations, the official pointed out.
Once the new map is available, the second round of funding will be awarded to locations that are partially in census blocks or partially served locations.
The FCC had planned on voting on standards for a new mapping plan, the FCC official confirmed.
The Alabamian then asked the FCC about the $1.5 million county officials claim were withheld from the county that could have gone toward underserved areas. County officials also claimed the funding was to cover a portion of underserved areas between Haleyville and Double Springs.
The FCC staff had earlier been questioned about this, the official stated. Applications for funding need to be filed in June and December each year, but it takes staff at least two more months to actually process the data, the official said.
This results in a time delay, so internet service providers are brought in to answer the charges.
“That doesn’t seem to be what happened here,” the FCC official stated. “The numbers my staff pulled for me show that our preliminary eligible areas, 400, 500, 700 locations in Winston County, with about $1.17 million total funding available.
“There were a small number of challenges to just 22 census blocks that reduced those numbers, and $1.1 million in funding,” the FCC official continued to explain.
So, the first step is internet service providers are identifying to the FCC the areas they believe they can serve, as well as providing as information explaining how they have come to this conclusion. Step two is the FCC compiling a nationwide database of all the locations where broadband service can be improved so that can be reflected in the updated mapping. Step three is the FCC providing a direct avenue not only for state and local governments and other entities, but also individual consumers to contribute to the map and provide data.
“The mobile broadband funding is currently on hold while we consider our options,” the FCC official noted.
The 4G/LTE fund, amounting to $4.5 billion over a 10-year period for underserved areas across the country, has been put on hold while FCC officials try to figure out what to do about the lack of accurate rural broadband maps, the FCC officials explained.
The commission’s proposal is to convert that fund into a 5G fund and expand the funding up to $9 billion over a 10-year period in order to get quality broadband coverage throughout the country, the official continued.
“The FCC actually doesn’t have the necessary funding to implement the maps. We need Congress to appropriate funds,” the FCC official said. “We’ll have to wait to implement the maps until we have that.”
Comments can be filed through the FCC website at fcc.gov/ecfs. This stands for the electronic comment filing system, Veigle said.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.