Beset by Large Rural Areas, Arizona Aims to Blend Broadband Data Sources

States October 15th, 2008

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Broadband Census Arizona

By Drew Bennett, Special Correspondent, BroadbandCensus.com; and William G. Korver, Reporter, BroadbandCensus.com

This is the 16th of a series of articles surveying the state of broadband, and broadband data, within each of the United States and its territories.

October 15 – “Reliable, affordable access to high-capacity telecommunications infrastructure has become as essential as water, sewer, transportation and electricity service in creating healthy and successful communities in the 21st century.”

So begins a 2007 report by the Arizona Department of Commerce, the “Arizona Broadband Initiative Framework.”

The report concludes: “the opportunity for states to use ubiquitous broadband deployment as a competitive differentiator is quickly passing.” Further, “the realization of broadband connectivity in parts of rural Arizona will not be accomplished by relying on normal market forces alone.” In sum, the report urges government officials and others to expand and enhance broadband networks in the southwestern state.

Arizona is now setting off on a path that a handful of other U.S. states are already on. Officials in the Grand Canyon State sought to learn what other states have done to expand broadband services beyond those provided by market forces.

The Arizona Telecommunications and Information Council (ATIC) is tasked with coordinating state, as well as public/private projects, to encourage wide-scale deployment and availability of broadband services.

Initiatives include telemedicine projects, grants seeking federal funds to improve broadband and employment in rural areas, improved digital infrastructure in Native American tribal lands, and efforts to establish a broadband authority that could focus state funds on filling existing gaps in broadband access.

One of the key infrastructure gaps that the state is seeking to fill arises in smaller, underserved communities in proximity to “middle-mile” fiber lines that connect larger cities.

The Arizona Broadband Connect Initiative, a project being developed by the Government Information Technology Agency (GITA) in cooperation with the state Department of Commerce, seeks to develop “off-ramps” for these communities that would be owned by the towns and managed by carriers seeking to deliver the last mile of access.

Members of ATIC estimate that 30 communities could benefit from such an approach. In order to pursue such an initiative, better and more complete information about the existing infrastructure is needed.

“We don’t think it’s enough just to know where the users are,” ATIC members have commented. “It will also be useful to policy makers to know where the middle-mile is, where the towers are, and where the rights of way are.”

GITA has undertaken a study of best practices in broadband data gathering and infrastructure mapping that looks both outward – to comparable efforts in other states –and inward: to diverse state agencies that could contribute to a full-scale broadband mapping project in Arizona.

For example, the report compared the broadband mapping approaches of Colorado, which established a statewide public service network; the forging of a “strong” executive through the establishment of a broadband authority in the Vermont Telecommunications Authority; and the creation of a “public-private partnership,” such as the approaches taken by the states of North Carolina (through its e-NC Authority) and Kentucky, through its funding of Connected Nation, Inc.

Through early results from the assessment study and a survey of officials in other states, GITA and members of ATIC have identified a number of sources that need to be part of any comprehensive data-gathering mission, including proprietary data that is commercially available for purchase, unique state resources, federal data, carrier-contributed information, and survey data focused on Arizona’s unique , geography and market.

ATIC members refer to this diversified strategy on broadband data gathering as the “blended approach” and believe that there is a great deal of information already at states’ fingertips that can contribute significantly to a more accurate picture of existing broadband infrastructure.

ATIC understands that resource constraints and restrictions on the distribution of information that is deemed proprietary or competitively-sensitive data will be just a few of the obstacles blocking the path toward accurate broadband data acquisition and information-sharing. Still,  they aim to develop creative solutions to these problems.

“Each and every data source is imperfect in its own wonderful and at times maddening ways,” says Mark Goldstein, an ATIC member and the project manager of GITA’s broadband assessment study group. “But my belief is that in the aggregate you can develop meaningful information.”

Mark also believes that “crowdsourcing” may be an important factor in this effort – “letting the public fact-check the data,” as he describes it, could help inform better policy that in turn delivers better broadband to the public.

ATIC sources summed up what would be required of the state: “in Arizona, the leadership and the will are needed…identifying key policies that have the backing of the legislature are major factors.”

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