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Broadband Data Collection Must Be Thorough and Transparent, Say Experts

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WASHINGTON, May 10, 2009 – Broadband data collection needs to be more thorough and more transparent than currently existing models, a range of academic experts, builders of telecommunications infrastructure, and a key senator said last week.

Speaking at conference hosted last Thursday by the Benton Foundation, and at a technology and communications gathering on Wednesday, these officials highlighted the importance of fine granularity, of including robust measures of broadband speeds and technologies, and greater comprehensiveness than has been typical within this field.

At the Computer and Communications Industry Association’s annual gathering with legislators, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said: “We have to make sure that broadband [calculation] is done in a comprehensive and systematic manner that hasn’t been done in the past.”

At the Benton Foundation event, “Urban and Rural Examples of the 'Best in Breed’: Setting a High Standard for Broadband Stimulus Funding,” a range of city technology officials and private sector officials also addressed the key ingredient of broadband data.

“A major part of this discussion is, what is unserved and what is underserved,” said Bill Schrier, chief technology officer of the city of Seattle.

Understanding what is and isn’t service can only be done with solid analytical capabilities, and Schrier demonstrated a map in which Seattle demographic capabilities were mapped against particular broadband applications.

“Telework does not work now because we do not have true, symmetric, high-speed video," he said.

Schrier spoke highly about the city’s role in offering fiber-optic technologies and was skeptical about what he called cable modems’ lack of reliability. Most of all, he insisted that speed was an essential component of broadband mapping.

By “counting” individuals who have low-speed digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable modem coverage as “served,” such maps are missing the forest for the trees, he said. Instead, Schrier said, it would be better to point to a map of the entire United States and declare that – for the most part – it was “unserved” because 97 percent of home lack fiber-optic connections.

Keeping broadband data in the public realm was vital to broadband research, said Kate Williams, a University of Illinois researcher on broadband.

Williams and her team at the University of Illinois has systematically mapped out 606 grants awarded by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) from the mid-1990s to 2004.

Williams has begun matching up geographic resources emerging from the Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program – the broadband grants created by the fiscal stimulus legislation – with her TOPs data. She has begun to map out the cities in which individuals filed comments. See the List of NTIA Comments here.

Doing this geocoding has created a map – literally – of “which communities are already full-steam ahead.” As result, it has revealed the home that will serve as models of “best practices” for the NTIA to reward and replicate.

At the same time, ECFiber Chairman Tim Nulty, who is building a fiber-optic network in rural Vermont, criticized some aspects of the push toward broadband mapping.

“I see an awful lot of this stuff as semi-cynical excuses to postpone action” on building super-high-speed fiber optical networks, he said.

“If you define broadband as 200 kilobits per second, and then do a survey that says that any central office, with any DSL equipment, [means that a particular area] is being deemed as serviced,” you’ll get overly optimistic projections of broadband’s availability, said Nulty.

“It is a phony, it is a fake; it is an excuse to postpone action. You name something that you deem to call broadband, and you hire a bunch of captive think tanks, and a lot of people seem to have broadband,” he said. “I don't happen to think that a lot of this mapping and survey [work] is on the level.”

To see more complete coverage of the Benton Foundation event, Urban and Rural Examples of the 'Best in Breed’: Setting a High Standard for Broadband Stimulus Funding,” please see the Weekly Report of May 11, 2009. Trial subscriptions to the Weekly Report are available here.

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Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of and President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress. He is an attorney who works with cities, communities and companies to promote the benefits of internet connectivity. The articles and posts on and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.


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