Should the Data in Broadband Maps Be Transparent and Public?

Expert Opinion February 18th, 2009

, Publisher, BroadbandBreakfast.com

Blog Entries

WASHINGTON, February 18, 2009 – Art Brodsky, communications director at Public Knowledge, has just posted a new piece about Connected Nation. In it, he writes:

The new stimulus package just signed by President Obama has $350 million in it for broadband mapping, yet even before the bill was signed, the danger warnings for this program are glaringly obvious: Who will control the information on broadband deployment? If the program is done correctly, then the program may bring some benefits to the effort to include all Americans in the digital economy. If not, much of the money will be wasted.

Increasingly, it is beginning to look as if the program will be done at the mercy of the big telecommunications companies, who will seek to submit the information they want to submit, on the terms and conditions on which they want to submit it.

State governments, working months before the stimulus package was conceived, are ramping up their own programs to map deployment of broadband, and are finding they are already increasingly running into conflicts over the type of data they will receive. Some states want comprehensive, granular data. However, they are finding that the telecommunications industry, often represented by Connected Nation (CN), doesn’t want to give it to them. The result is a clash of policy objectives and politics that’s taking place across the country, in states ranging from North Carolina to Alabama, Colorado and Minnesota. Connected Nation’s board of directors is dominated by representatives of large telecom carriers, as CN positions itself as the best choice for states and the Federal government to spend millions of stimulus dollars on broadband mapping.

For more than a year, BroadbandCensus.com has been building an alternative to the proprietary-information model of Connected Nation.

I founded BroadbandCensus.com in January 2008 because I believe that data about local broadband speeds, prices, availability, reliability and competition should be publicly available. For more than a year, we have been collecting information from everyday citizens, through a process of “crowdsourcing” about their individual broadband connections. Individuals visiting BroadbandCensus.com are invited to Take the Broadband Census by answering a simple seven-question survey about their location, who provides them with broadband, their promised speed, and their level of satisfaction.

After Taking the Broadband Census, individuals may test their speed. We use the open source Network Diagnostic Tool of Internet2 to test their upload and download speeds, and the results are then publicly displayed and available for all, under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License.

Our biggest challenge to take has been to get the word out to more and more people, about the existence of BroadbandCensus.com, and about the need for more people to get involved in broadband mapping.

Last week, he had a breakthrough in receiving coverage from The New York Times, and in a guest Op-Ed that I wrote for ArsTechnica.

We have also begun to roll out our BroadbandCensus.com Broadband Wiki, which is designed to aggregate data about the state of broadband across the nation — by state, by county, by city and by ZIP code.

Individuals who want to learn more about BroadbandCensus.com may contact me via email, drew at broadbandcensus.com, or by phone at 202-580-8196.

You may also like:

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Responses to “Should the Data in Broadband Maps Be Transparent and Public?”

  1. Brett Glass Says:

    I realize that “Connected Nation” is, in some respects, a competitor of your broadband mapping effort — but this is no reason to cast aspersions upon it.

    There’s a good reason why ISPs — especially small, rural, and competitive ISPs — do not want precise maps of their coverage areas published: it enables anticompetitive tactics. Given detailed information about competitors’ coverage areas and sites (especially wireless ISPs’ towers), large incumbent carriers can precisely target anticompetitive tactics (e.g. predatory pricing, long term “lock in” contracts, etc.) at the areas which competitors serve, while not losing money on other areas. And since our country’s current broadband policy does nothing to aid these competitors in any way, they’re vulnerable. Want a duopoly? Gather competitive intelligence, at government expense, for the big guys — who will use it to wipe out all competitors. On the other hand, if you want users to have a choice of providers, or to foster the deployment of broadband to unserved or underserved areas, you’ll advocate exactly what “Connected Nation” does: map the general coverage areas but aggregate the information so that it cannot be used to harm competition. It just makes sense.

  2. Drew Clark Says:

    Brett, thanks for commenting on this subject on BroadbandCensus.com, as you also did on Public Knowledge web site.

    Readers should know that these are issues that you and I have talked about for more than two years. For reference, read http://broadbandcensus.com/?p=352.

    In my view, it simply does not pass the laugh test for someone to say, as the carriers do, that disclosing the ZIP codes, or ZIP+4 codes, in which a particular competitor operators puts the carrier into a position of competitive harm. Another good background piece on this was published last week in The New York Times: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/11/why-spend-350-million-to-map-broadband/

  3. Brett Glass Says:

    Zip codes? Probably not — especially in rural areas. But remember: Zip+4 codes can cover an area as small as a single floor of an apartment building. (I am part owner of an apartment building that has four Zip+4 codes.) This could, indeed, put a small, competitive ISP into a position of competitive harm. Fellow WISPs report that when they expand into a new area the incumbent telephone monopoly follows, as soon as it finds out, with remote DSL terminals and begins offering “loss leader” deals. And I’ve seen my own wireless sites targeted for illegal interference by less-than-savory wireless competitors. And this is without the benefit of having the government gather competitive intelligence and cataloging it for them. Drew, you seem to have your heart in the right place but are not working day to day in this hypercompetitive business. If you did, you would see the threat.

  4. Brett Glass Says:

    P.S. — Since your site is called “BroadbandCensus.com,” you should be well aware that the very same issues exist as do in a “real” census.

    In a real census, people will not report accurate information (or any information at all!) if they believe that personal information will be published… or even warehoused and possibly be released at any time in the near future. Even when the government does make assurances that data will be released only in aggregated form, many people belonging to certain groups — such as Hispanics (including those with legal residence and/or citizenship) and more recently Muslims — believe that the risk is too great that the data will get out or be abused, and do not report.

    Now, think about what it might be like for a small businessperson, in a line of business where anticompetitive tactics are rampant and government protection of competitors is nil, to be asked to participate in a “census” where detailed data about his or her would be published, not anonymized, and not aggregated. This person’s livelihood and personal fortune are at stake here, in a way that you could not imagine unless you yourself had “skin in the game.”

    Censuses only work at all when they promise a degree of anonymity. Drew, I admire your efforts to assess where broadband is available and where it is not. However, you must respect the hard working people who are out there actually doing it, who are worried every day that some huge megacorporation will find a way to squash them or “cut off their air supply” (as a Microsoft exec once famously put it). Every day, I work incredibly hard, against incredible odds, to keep this business running and to fulfill my personal mission to make broadband available to as many unserved areas as I possibly can. And every day, I see people “inside the Beltway” who claim that they are in favor of universal broadband deployment but who are actually pursuing agendas that would hurt, rather than help, this mission. How about you?

Leave a Reply