Three maps. Three different answers. The new National Broadband Map, which uses the national serviceable location fabric for the first time, shows Paulding County with 100% coverage in the 25/3 speed tier. (Map/FCC)
PAULDING – Prior to the pandemic, Sherwood Mutual Telephone Association (SMTA) was looking to expand into Paulding County. The company had completed roughly 90 miles of fiber construction in the Hicksville area, and it was awarded funding through Defiance County to conduct a build in Ney.

The company knew that communications were spotty in parts of this county, and SMTA thought it might be able to help strengthen coverage.

However, it wasn’t until the pandemic and the passage of the American Recovery Plan Act, better known as ARPA, that the path forward became apparent. The legislation provided funding to state and local governments to be used for three initial purposes: broadband, water and sewer.

The townships in Paulding County received $1.09 million in ARPA funds, villages got just under $900,000, and the county government received approximately $1.9 million of its own.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was also signed into law, allocating $65 billion dollars towards broadband initiatives, including $46 billion set aside for the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment Program. The BEAD program provides grants to states, territories and the District of Columbia for broadband deployment.

At the same time, the Ohio General Assembly was passing House Bill 2, which established a grant program to fund the state’s first-ever residential broadband expansion program. To date, Broadband Ohio has awarded more than $232 million dollars in grants, so internet service providers can build broadband infrastructure in the hardest to reach areas of the state.

It was this rapidly changed climate that encouraged former Paulding County Commissioner Clint Vance to begin championing broadband, reaching out to local internet service providers (ISPs) and Tim Copsey, the director of Paulding County Economic Development to start examining what a build program might look like. After the untimely death of Vance, new commissioner Mike Weible assumed the county’s lead on the broadband project.

“We’ve been trying for quite some time,” said Rick Rostorfer, general manager at SMTA. “The commissioners basically asked me to assist them in writing the program for them to come up with the funding, with the help of Eric Roughton from Arthur Mutual Telephone.”

The Communications Act of 1996 commanded the Federal Communication Commission and each state to “encourage the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans,” and stated that the FCC shall determine whether or not it “is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” If the FCC finds otherwise, it is charged with taking “immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability.”

This updated the Communications Act of 1934, which specified “that consumers in ‘rural, insular and high-cost areas’ should have access to telecommunications and information services at rates that are ‘reasonably comparable’ to rates charged for similar services in urban areas.”

Before one can build broadband infrastructure where it is needed, one must know where there is need. To know where there's need, one needs accurate, reliable maps. And, as it turns out, accurate, reliable maps are extremely difficult to produce.

The federal government has been trying to solve the mapping problem since 1996, and prior to the new National Broadband Map unveiled last November, by nearly all accounts it failed miserably at the task.

Part of the issue stems from the fact broadband is more of a marketing term than it is a technical definition. Different entities define it differently, based on both individual needs and the technology used.

Typically, internet speed is measured with two numbers: download speed and upload speed. For example, if the FCC defines minimum broadband speeds of 25/3, it means that a consumer can download at a rate of 25 megabytes per second and upload at 3 megabytes per second.

Broadband definitions not only differ between various entities, but they also change over time. And the cutting edge of the marketplace moves considerably faster than the regulatory pace of government.

Any new technology is usually adopted along an “S” curve. It begins slowly as early adopters embrace a new technology and the marketplace catches up to demand. Once the markets have determined and standardized the technology, growth in adoption accelerates at an exponential pace until the technology becomes ubiquitous. Finally, with most users having adopted the technology, growth levels off as late adopters finally embrace it.

As with electrification and cable television, rural areas trail behind for economic reasons. It is simply too expensive for the marketplace to serve remote areas and be competitive. Government subsidies become necessary to ensure all Americans have access. It becomes critical that the tax dollars supporting the infrastructure go to where it is truly needed, not overbuilding areas that already have service, or worse, underbuilding areas that need it most.

By the zip code

At the time of the first deployment report, issued in 1999, then-FCC Chairman William E. Kennard wrote in an accompanying statement, “It is very early in the game. Therefore, I want to make it very clear that this issue remains at the top of my agenda. Regardless of the objective measures we use to measure deployment, on a subjective level, I am impatient. I want the Internet to go faster and farther for all Americans.”

He added, “My concern is that a geometric increase in demand may be mirrored by a geometric increase in the urban-rural disparity.”

Commissioner Tristani wrote in her own statement, “I am especially concerned about the lack of hard evidence when it comes to our obligation to determine that advanced telecommunications services are being deployed, and are available, to ‘all Americans’. “

Future reports began the near-constant refrain on gathering better data. Kennard’s comments accompanying the second deployment report stated, ‘while this report provides us a baseline for the future, it also shows the need for further, more sophisticated data, to give us a clearer view of deployment. I share the concerns … that our zip code data are so general that they may overstate the level of deployment.”

At the time he wrote that above, the standard used by the FCC to determine if an area had broadband was this: If a single person or customer had broadband access in a zip code, it was assumed that everyone in that zip code had access.

The zip code data did not distinguish between a residential or commercial customer.

There was another problem with this early data. Providers with fewer than 250 lines installed in any state were exempt from reporting data, which led to substantial numbers of small providers’ lines not counting towards deployment.

For those reasons, Kennard still feared rural areas were much less likely to have access to “advanced services.”

While future deployment reports continued to conclude that broadband was being deployed in a reasonable and timely manner, dissensions began forming along political lines within the FCC over the quality of the data.

New chairman Michael Powell said in a statement accompanying the third report that “while we should strive for more granular or direct data” it would be “misleading to suggest that the zip code data used in our evaluation process provide little useful guidance.” He argued that the costs of providing and marketing services meant that a provider would offer service to considerably more than a single customer.

Commissioner Michael Copps dissented, writing, “I am unable to determine whether the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans is or is not reasonable and timely. This is because we have not gathered data of adequate quality or granularity to fulfill our statutory responsibility under Section 706.”

He added, “It is our statutory duty to obtain this data,” and urged the Commission “to obtain concrete, nationwide data,” while acknowledging that “this data is admittedly neither easy nor cheap to come by. It is, however, necessary for the fulfillment of our charge from Congress.”

A new standard

The zip code standard would last until 2008, when the FCC ordered that broadband subscribership data be collected every six months from service providers. The key change was that providers would now be required to “report numbers of broadband subscribers by Census Tract, broken down by speed tier and technology type.”

The new Form 477 continued the same flawed logic of the zip code data: that if a single customer had broadband access or could reasonably be provided it without undo burden on a provider (usually this meant within ten days), the area had service.

Copps continued his criticism, “Based on a paucity of data – mostly primitive and generally unhelpful – these reports claim progress that simply did not reflect reality” and that the FCC “employed stunningly meaningless zip code measurements.”

“We can write reports that conclude that Americans are receiving broadband in a reasonable and timely fashion. But the facts are always there, glaring and staring us in the face, showing us where we really stand. The fact is your country and mine has never had any cognizable national broadband strategy to get the job done.”

By now, FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein joined Copps in dissent, writing about the lack of reliable data available in the report, “It largely relies on the same old methodology for assessing broadband availability and competition that has been recognized almost universally as flawed and broken.”

2010 saw the first broadband deployment report under the Obama administration and also the first report to use the new Form 477 data. Notably, it was the first report to conclude that broadband was not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. In the report, it sought to collect “better broadband data to assist policymakers and consumers.” It also moved the standard from 200 Kb/s download speed to 4 Mbps /1 Mbps.

The sixth report concluded that between 14 million and 24 million Americans still lacked access to broadband, and that “the immediate prospects for deployment to them are bleak.”

FCC Commissioner Michael Clyburn wrote at the time, “For those Americans who lack access, it does not matter to them that 95% of Americans have access. What matters to them is that they do not have access in their homes.”

His colleague, Copps added “Good data is a prerequisite to good policy choices. Today’s report sadly confirms the existence of the digital divides … With our heads in the sand for so many years, is it any surprise other nations catapulted ahead of the United States in the broadband race?”

Not everyone at the time agreed. Commissioner Meredith Baker wrote that “nowhere in section 706 does it require that goal be reached definitively in 2010,” rather it asks whether progress is being made toward that goal.

Meanwhile, billions of dollars continued to flow towards broadband, including funding in the Recovery Act following the 2008 financial crisis. 

Congress also passed the Broadband Data Improvement Act, which sought to improve federal data on the deployment and adoption of broadband service. Among the changes was that the FCC had to provide “annual” instead of “regular” updates to Congress on the progress outlined in Section 706.

In subsequent years, the standard for broadband changed again to 25/3 speeds but continued to show that over half of all rural Americans lacked access to that speed.

Deployment reports during the Obama administration continued to show a lack of reasonable and timely progress on reaching all Americans, and the Form 477 data continued to be criticized as being too generalized to be accurate.

The first annual report under President Trump found progress to have been restored, but “more work remains to connect all Americans to high-speed internet.”

The verdict of the reports seemed to have just as much to do with the swaying of political winds as it did with actual broadband deployment.

In 2019, the FCC established the Digital Opportunity Data Collection. It sought to conduct a more “granular, nationwide data collection effort,” according to government documents at the time.

Yet, the poor-quality maps continued to draw widespread, bipartisan criticism. Congress and the states were beginning to take notice and demand answers from the FCC.

Enter Congressman Latta

Representative Bob Latta, who represents Paulding County in Ohio's Fifth Congressional District , joined the Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as the Communications and Technology subcommittee, which oversees broadband policy, in 2010 (Last month, he was named chairman of the subcommittee) .

For Latta, accurate broadband mapping became a personal crusade, and he took his Congressional oversight role seriously, “Several years ago, when the FCC posted maps, they put them out for us to look at, and I looked at the state of Ohio. I immediately called then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, and I said, ‘Your maps are wrong.’”

The Senate Commerce Committee also held oversight hearings on broadband policy, including mapping. In the hearings, new details would emerge, highlighting the difficulties the FCC faced when building maps.

One such challenge plaguing the FCC surfaced during the confirmation hearing for Jessica Rosenworcel as the agency’s Chairwoman in 2021. Under questioning from ranking member Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Rosenworcel admitted that “it turns out the FCC didn’t actually have the computer processing power to build big maps … so as soon as I found out, we immediately secured that capacity, and then we also decided that we would come up with a statistically valid way for states, localities, and service providers to challenge any data before us.”

Back on the House side, Latta began working on legislation that would become the BroadbandDATA Act, requiring the creation of a location-based Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric, which states every location in the nation that can be served by broadband.

“You can go online to the FCC, put your home address in, and it comes up with whether or not you have access,” said Latta in an interview with The Paulding County Progress. “It could be that’s incorrect, just like it was before. And so, you have a challenge process you can do online, right there and the FCC would have to relook at the map, especially in your area.”

The map is located at, and includes data through June 30, 2022.

Because the BEAD funding mentioned above is tied to the areas deemed unserved or underserved according to the new broadband fabric, it is imperative individuals challenge the data if they think it is wrong.

“There is a two-part reason for this,” said Latta. “Important reason number one: We want people who are unserved to get access. I know over in Grover Hill, they didn’t have access several years ago. If you didn’t have access … you couldn’t work from home. You couldn’t communicate with loved ones. So we want to make sure we have accurate maps on that account.”

Latta continued,“the other part of it is that we don’t want overbuilding. There’s going to be about $46 billion dollars for the build out, and we want to make sure our rural areas get served.”

Ohio takes its shot

While the fabric was being created, Ohio joined multiple states who decided it was time to develop their own.

In the end, Ohio’s maps proved just as controversial as the federal ones.

“I will go on record saying that the BroadbandOhio maps are inaccurate,” said Rostorfer of SMTA. “It depends on what determination is being used. Right now, broadband is determined at 25/3. I would say that close to 90% of broadband available in Paulding County meets that requirement.”

While the new National Broadband Map shows 100% of Paulding County having 25/3 service, the BroadbandOhio map shows 69% of the county lacking that service.

The Paulding County Progress reached out to BroadbandOhio and asked them about the discrepancy. According to the agency, they chose to use speed test data because “unlike other metrics that might overestimate the amount of coverage across Ohio, it allowed us to obtain a more accurate, on-the-ground measurement of the actual internet speeds Ohioans are receiving in their homes.”

It added that “The goal of both the challenge process and the use of our speed test maps is to identify any potential inaccuracies in the national map, and help improve it, so we can provide high-speed internet to every Ohioan.”

BroadbandOhio added that prior to the current FCC maps, “we did not have street level data, so knowing whether a particular house was served or unserved was difficult. Now, with the FCC maps, we have the ability to see what the service level at each house is currently.”

As the county began the process of working with villages, townships, and local ISPs, it entered into non-disclosure agreements with local providers to create a countywide map using overlays of their coverage. Given the NDAs, The Paulding County Progress wasn’t able to see what percentage of households have 25/3 service, but based on the new National Broadband Map, Connected Nation’s map for Paulding County, and interviews with local telecommunications executives, Paulding County likely has between 95-99% coverage at the 25/3 level and is working hard to close that gap.

Derek Turner, a senior advisor on Economic and Policy Analysis at Free Press, a consumer advocacy group that works in Washington D.C. on policy issues related to freedom of the press and an open internet, isn’t sure accurate maps are the right goal.

“Maps have come under a lot of critique over the years for being a poor representation of reality. I have a slightly different perspective than that when it comes to national policy. I think they’re accurate enough and they certainly give a good picture of where things are going. There is never going to be a perfect broadband map and the decision makers in the states who are deciding on funding need to treat the National Broadband Map as a starting point, not an endpoint,” said Turner.

(Adam Papin is the editor of The Paulding County Progress. He can be reached at