House Defers to Senate Broadband Data Bill; Final Bill Deletes Funding and National Map

Broadband Data October 7th, 2008

, Former Reporter, BroadbandBreakfast.com

WASHINGTON, October 7 – Congress last week passed legislation, the “Broadband Data Improvement Act,” that seeks better information about high-speed internet connections through enhanced data collection by five separate government agencies.

But as passed by the Senate and the House, S. 1492 deleted all authorization of funds – an amount that had totaled $40 million for each of fiscal years 2008 through 2012 in the Senate Commerce Committee version of the legislation.

Although S. 1492 was agreed to by the House, the bill undercut many of the key features of a companion House bill, the “Broadband Census of America Act,” H.R. 3919.

H.R. 3919 passed the House in November 2007. It would have forced the disclosure of company-by-company broadband data. It also would have created a national broadband map under the aegis of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, with details on broadband coverage by every broadband provider at the nine-digit ZIP code level. Both features are absent in the final bill.

The Senate finally passed S. 1492 on Friday, September 26 – the same day that many state officials and academics gathered in Washington at the “Broadband Census for America Conference” sponsored by BroadbandCensus.com, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Texas at Austin and Virginia Tech’s eCorridors Program.

Until recently, Sen. Thomas Coburn, R-Okla., had opposed passage of S. 1492 on the grounds that the $40 million annual authorization was an unwarranted expenditure of federal monies.

The House passed a slightly-modified version of S. 1492 on Monday, September 29 – the same day that it initially rejected the $700 billion financial industry bailout package. Because of the changes, the Senate needed to clear the House-passed version. It did so last week, and the bill is currently before President Bush.

Sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the Broadband Data Improvement Act has received wide-spread support across Congress. At a September 16 hearing, Inouye said that the measure “will give us the baseline statistics we need in order to eventually achieve the successful deployment of broadband…to all Americans.”

Some House members expressed disappointment about S. 1492’s failure to require comprehensive mapping of broadband and reporting on commercial providers on the local level.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., agreed with Inouye’s statement on the positive impact better data could have. Through an aide, Dingell said he would have preferred to create a nationwide map of broadband infrastructure and “remains hopeful we can work towards that goal as the legislation is implemented.”

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, expressed similar disappointment. In a statement, Markey said he “wish[ed] the Senate bill contained the more rigorous data collection and disclosure, as well as the mapping provisions that were contained in the House-passed bill.”

During House floor consideration of the bill on Monday, Markey was optimistic that such a comprehensive mapping effort might still be possible, arguing that “the Secretary of Commerce should create a website through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) depicting broadband inventory maps of all the States as outlined in the House-passed bill.”

The Commerce Department is one of several federal agencies that will now be tasked with improving national data on broadband services and utilizing that data to improve policies to enhance and expand the technological infrastructure, including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Census Bureau (a nominally independent part of Commerce), the Government Accountability Office, and the Small Business Administration.

The Act also changes the language of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to require the FCC conduct an “annual” – in place of a “regular” – inquiry into broadband deployment and to list of all the 5-digit ZIP codes where broadband is not available in the U.S.

The reach of the Broadband Data Improvement Act could be global: the FCC is also directed to conduct studies on broadband services in 25 other nations and to report on difference and similarities between these nations and the U.S.

Likewise, the Census Bureau will have to expand its studies of America’s technology uses and include questions on computer ownership and broadband vs. dial-up adoption in its ongoing American Community Survey, according to the Act.

Progress on the Broadband Data Improvement Act came amidst heavy criticism of both the federal government’s broadband data collection methods and metrics as well as the United States’ arguably poor stature in broadband connectivity levels when compared to other nations.

The importance of improving the country’s broadband infrastructure was the subject of a recent hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, the same committee responsible for the markup of S. 1492. At the hearing, representatives from an array of consumer groups conveyed to senators the impact broadband has had on American’s lives through innovations like online education, telehealth applications, and increased employment opportunities. Broadband was even responsible for the delivery of one citizens testimony from Alaska, where citizens living on remote native American lands depend on high-speed internet for key access to virtual health care delivered from as far away as Dayton, Ohio.

Inouye concluded the hearing by stating that federal policies should better reflect the importance of broadband to the national communications system.

The following week, another set of experts gathered at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington at the Broadband Census for America Conference to discuss the importance of improving broadband data collection in order to better inform policy.

At the conference, broadband policy makers and economic experts like Professor Kenneth Flamm of the University of Texas discussed the challenge to the development of sound policy posed by the lack of quality data. “We really don’t have a lot of scientific data available on broadband right now,” Flamm said.

Former FCC Commissioner Rachelle Chong, currently a Public Utility Commission in California, presented a keynote address at conference focusing on California’s current efforts to collect granular data on broadband availability in the state. The effort seeks to improve upon the limited and highly criticized data published by the FCC.

On Capitol Hill, S. 1492 does not dictate any major reforms in the FCC methodology, a signal that Congress is largely satisfied with recent self-improvements the Commission said it would make. In June, the FCC released the details of a March order seeking collection of data about broadband availability at the census tract level. The FCC refuses to release the names of the broadband providers that offer service, citing “competitive harm” that would follow from such disclosure.

The FCC also seeks to include of speed tier data to better reflect the quality of service advertised by broadband providers.

The Broadband Data Improvement Act does attempt to improve further on some of the FCC’s metrics through other institutions. On speed and price, for example, S. 1492 calls for GAO to develop methods and metrics to measure the actual price per bit consumers receive and the actual broadband speeds they experience as well, as opposed to the advertised speeds.

While specific funding for these provisions awaits determination by the Appropriations Committee, the act does direct Commerce to establish a grants program that will match funds by state, municipal, or non-profit organizations intended for “initiatives to identify and track the availability and adoption of broadband services within each State.”

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) cited this final provision in particular on Wednesday when Ray Baum of the Oregon Public Utilities Commission, and chairman of the NARUC Telecommunications Committee, applauded Congress for acknowledging “the important role States play.” He added: “the information gained as a result of this bill will speed broadband-collection programs and help bring the power of the Internet to as many citizens as possible.”

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