(Bloomberg) -- Tiny Gerlach, Nevada, looks like the ideal place to receive some of the $42.5 billion in federal funds that President Joe Biden has targeted to provide internet access to underserved areas. 

There’s just one catch: The town of 161, gateway to the state’s Black Rock Desert, already has broadband access, according to a government map showing that T-Mobile US Inc. provides service there. If that’s true, Gerlach is unlikely to be eligible for help from the once-in-a-generation program.

“There is no reliable broadband up there,” insists Washoe County Manager Eric Brown, whose jurisdiction includes Gerlach. “The fact that the maps reflect that is inaccurate.”

The debate over coverage in Gerlach is part of a broader controversy hanging over the broadband buildout, which is just getting underway. 

Wireless providers have exaggerated the breadth and quality of their service — complicating efforts to identify areas in need, according to state and local officials, consultants and US lawmakers. By doing so, they can block potential rivals from obtaining subsidies and invading their markets. Their reported coverage areas appear on newly devised and much-disputed maps that will determine how the funds get allocated.

Many of the claims center around fixed wireless, a new area of growth for carriers in which customers access mobile networks via a receiver in a home or office, rather than through a cable or telephone line. Wireless internet service can be patchy in places, however. And if those areas get marked as already served, they’ll miss out on funds that could boost their internet speeds. An estimated 30 million or more Americans live in areas that lack such access.

“The last thing we need to do is a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner and have people come out of the woodwork,” Rob Fish, deputy director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board, said in an interview. “That’s where we’re headed, I fear.”

The Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program was adopted by Congress in 2021 as part of a broader infrastructure package that Biden said would “make high-speed internet affordable and available everywhere in America.”

T-Mobile claims its fixed wireless can serve 45 million addresses, or more than one-third of the 114 million places listed in the maps when they were revealed last fall. Verizon Communications Inc. said it can reach almost 19 million.

Since then, T-Mobile’s territory has grown. “Today, 50 million homes are eligible for this product,” according to a T-Mobile representative. Availability is “dynamic” and dependent on network capacity, the rep said. Verizon declined to comment for this story. 

Reach vs. Serve

Carriers are allowed to report places they could potentially reach, as well as those they already serve, according to Christopher Ali, a telecommunications professor at Pennsylvania State University.

“They’re reporting hypothetical service, not actual service,” Ali said in an interview. The practice follows rules set down by the Federal Communications Commission, yet creates “the false impression of rural and connected America. But we know this is wrong.”

Until recently, consumers typically obtained home broadband, or high-speed internet service, from cable TV providers and phone companies. But in recent years, mobile carriers led by T-Mobile and Verizon have grabbed a share of customers by rolling out wireless home internet service.

The service can deliver high speeds, meeting the FCC threshold of at least 25 megabits per second for downloads, and 3 megabits per second for uploads. That’s the minimum widely claimed on FCC maps. But eligible locations have to be within signal range of a cell site, and connections slow when the network gets crowded. The service is still being built out in much of the country. 

Work in Progress

The FCC has told carriers to submit estimates of their fixed wireless coverage backed by engineering data. The providers, in turn, say they are refining the data, and the agency is taking in suggested changes.

“The maps will only get better over time as the FCC gets input from stakeholders across the country,” said FCC spokesperson Paloma Perez. “The maps are not perfect.”

Some lawmakers want the maps corrected before the money goes out.

“Refusing to allow time to fix flawed maps will disproportionately impact funding that states like Nevada get for broadband infrastructure, and could result in our state losing out on millions of dollars,” said US Senator Jacky Rosen, a Nevada Democrat.

Nevada officials have identified about 20,000 addresses that the federal maps incorrectly list as having broadband, according to Brian Mitchell, director of the Governor’s Office of Science, Innovation and Technology.

‘Many Inaccuracies’

“We found what we believe are inaccuracies across many different providers and many technology types,” he said in an interview.

Officials in other states, including Texas, have spoken out as well. Virginia officials found more than 1.6 million locations that were reported as served by national wireless providers at broadband speeds, yet weren’t reported as such to the state.

Claims by T-Mobile, in particular, have drawn attention from some state regulators who share thoughts in an informal network, according to Peggy Schaffer, who led Maine’s broadband program until retiring last year.

“T-Mobile has been very aggressive about this,” Schaffer said in an interview. “They’ve way overclaimed what they can serve.”

CTIA, a wireless trade group, said companies are striving to provide accurate data for the maps.

“The wireless industry is committed to working closely with the FCC,” said Nick Ludlum, a CTIA spokesman. “Fixed wireless access service is a rapidly growing home broadband solution” with providers adding capability daily, and updating the FCC.

For now, at least, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a Commerce Department branch that will administer the funds, intends to move ahead and issue grants by June 30.

“A delay in the time line would mean a delay in providing funding to communities who desperately need it,” the agency said in a blog post Jan. 13. 

--With assistance from Madeline Campbell.

(Updates with T-Mobile comment in 10th paragraph.)

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