BroadbandCensus.com: Leading the Charge for Public and Transparent Data

Expert Opinion September 21st, 2009

, Publisher, BroadbandBreakfast.com

WASHINGTON, September 21, 2009 – Broadband data is important for the future of our country – and public and transparent broadband data is even more important.

Today, at this moment, new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski is making a speech in which he is highlighting the vital principle of public and transparent broadband data.

For three years now, this principle has been the core belief animating my efforts as a journalist, and as the entrepreneur founding BroadbandCensus.com. Now, as we enter the fourth year since this saga began, it’s time to take stock and reflect on what BroadbandCensus.com has accomplished.

And with One Web Week having arrived, I’d like to lay out this history from a personal perspective. In this series of blog posts, I’m going to speak about what we’ve been through, who we have worked with to advance the principles of public and transparent broadband data, and what we ultimately aim to achieve at BroadbandCensus.com.

  • Part 1: The debate begins with the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2006.
  • Part 2, on One Web Day: The founding of BroadbandCensus.com in the fall of 2007.
  • Part 3: The Broadband Census for America Conference in September 2008, and our work with the academic community to foster public and transparent broadband data-collection efforts.
  • Part 4: BroadbandCensus.com’s involvement with the National Broadband Plan in 2009.
  • The Final Part: The role BroadbandCensus.com and broadband users have to play in the creation of a robust and reliable National Broadband Data Warehouse.

The Beginnings: Why I Sued Kevin Martin’s Federal Communications Commission

BroadbandCensus.com was founded in October 2007 after I spent nearly a year and a half with the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit investigative journalism organization based here in Washington. But the quest for public and transparent broadband data goes back further.

For more than 15 years, I have covered the politics of telecom, media and technology. Most of that was spent at the National Journal Group in Washington, a key source of inside information about policy and lobbying. My aim there, as it is now, was to ensure that all the facts are brought to the table, that divergent viewpoints are fairly represented, and that questions asked go to the center of the debate.

When it came to broadband, the looming questions were and still are: where do we have broadband in the United States, and who is offering it? What kind of service is promised, and are carriers delivering on those promises?

In 2006, issues of broadband policy lurked in the background of many major political and media controversies: Net neutrality, online piracy, media ownership and control, the build out of high-speed networks, both wired and wireless, and the role of Web 2.0 in government and society. Whatever the ultimate resolutions for each of these controversies, the first step was better broadband data.

At this time, I headed the Center for Public Integrity’s media and telecommunications project, “Well Connected.” We were expanding its focus on media ownership to the new source of media control: the nation’s broadband infrastructure.

The Federal Communications Commission had a database about the carriers that offer broadband by ZIP code. This database is created from the carriers filing the Form 477 with the FCC. The FCC publishes other databases of the locations of radio and television broadcasters, and of cable companies. We asked for a copy of the Form 477 database in August 2006. At that time, we cited the Freedom of Information Act.

An FCC staff member called me to discuss arrangements for getting our electronic copy. When I called the FCC staffer back, less than 45 minutes later, he told me that he had been instructed not to talk to me further. From that point on, only Kevin Martin’s lawyers would do the talking.

The FCC missed their 20-day deadline to timely respond to our FOIA letter. On September 25, 2006, the Center for Public Integrity filed suit in federal district court , seeking to enforce our FOIA request. We asked the district court to grant us access to the Form 477 database, with information about subscriber numbers redacted (if necessary). The end result would be a database with the names of the carriers that offer broadband on a ZIP code basis.

Even though the FCC has been collecting the Form 477 since 2000, and already has a database of all of this information, they have only ever released the number of providers within a ZIP code, and not the names of the providers. Even then, the agency only released the number if the number was four or more – out of an excessive concern for identifying carrier information.

That’s like saying that the government will restrict the release of information it has about how many gas stations there are in your town if there are not four or more gas stations in town. In any case, the government won’t tell you the names of the gas stations, or where you can find them, so that you can buy gas. And most definitely, they won’t share the prices at which the gas stations sell gas.

“We filed suit against the FCC to obtain the data that the public and policy-makers need in order to get a complete and accurate picture of the current state of broadband,” I said at the time.

Broadband Providers Seek to Forestall Publication of Carrier-Level Broadband Data

I’ve recounted the story of the FOIA litigation at great length, in June 2007, in a story, “Center Spearheads Efforts to Disclose Broadband Data,” and in February 2009 in Ars Technica, “US broadband infrastructure investments need transparency.”

We were seeking something quite straightforward: the identities of broadband carriers that offer service within a particular geographic location. At the time, we were seeking ZIP code information, because that was the best information that the FCC had.  I and many others have long recognized that ZIP codes are extremely problematic and coarse unit of measurement. And that is why it is extremely positive that, in July 2009, the NTIA declared that it needed broadband information by Census block.

But in 2006 and 2007, getting carrier-level broadband data by ZIP would have been a good first step. Then-Chairman Kevin Martin, of course, was never a fan of public disclosure. After his agency nixed any sort of collaboration or compromise in approaching our FOIA request, Martin sought to shore up support from industry. On December 15, 2006, the agency issued a “Public Notice to Service Providers Who Filed FCC Form 477s With The Commission And Sought Confidential Treatment Of The Information Submitted.”

AT&T and Verizon Communications, along with the Wireless Communications Association International, intervened in the lawsuit. Others filed as “friends of the court,” on the side of the FCC. The public notice and the interventions forced Judge Rosemary Collyer to recuse herself from the case, as she owned stock in AT&T. The case went to Judge Ellen Huvelle.

“As a non-profit publisher of investigative journalism committed to transparent and comprehensive reporting both in the U.S. and around the world, the Center for Public Integrity believes that making data about the names of the broadband provider on a ZIP code-by-ZIP code basis would allow consumers to ‘truth-check’ the FCC data,” I wrote at the time. “Adding citizen-provided information about the speed, quality and price of such connections would, in turn, create a robust collection of information further informing telecommunications-related public policy debates.”

In their defense, the carriers said that disclosure would cause them competitive harm – the legal standard for denying the disclosure of data under the Freedom of Information Act.

In our legal briefings, the Center noted “that all of the major communications companies – including cable, wireless and telecom players – already provide ZIP code lookup of service availability on their Web sites.” If the information was not available on web site, the information was readily available by calling up the carrier and asking if service was available at that address. Because such information was already readily-discoverable, aggregating the data on a single web site would not cause competitive harm, either.

Among those who intervened in the suit, some sincerely believed that disclosure would have caused them harm. Others litigated merely because of the possibility of a negative FOIA precedent. Whatever the case, Kevin Martin’s FCC certainly went all-out to defend restrictions on data.

In its legal briefings, the FCC argued that releasing the data would lead to competition in communications. “Disclosure could allow competitors to free ride on the efforts of the first new entrant to identify areas where competition is more likely to be successful,” the agency told the federal district court in Washington.

It was supremely ironic that that the FCC and the communications industry were fighting our efforts to obtain public and transparent broadband data at the same time that Congress and the FCC began to clamor for precisely that which we were seeking: better broadband data to address a range of policy concerns.

Together with my friend Scott Wallsten, then of the Progress and Freedom Foundation (later with Technology Policy Institute, and now at the FCC), the Center for Public Integrity organized a Conference on Broadband Statistics on June 28, 2007, at the National Academy of Science.

Scott and I gathered an assemblage of many people, including officials from Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, ConnectKentucky, plus leading academics and policy practitioners in the field, including experts from Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Pew Internet and American Life Project, and the University of Texas at Austin, to consider precisely these questions. Audio from the June 2007 conference is available here; a transcript of the proceeding is available here.

More recently, Wallsten’s appointment as the economics director of the FCC’s broadband task force has prompted some controversy. But Wallsten has always been supportive of my efforts – and those of others in the field – to push for greater disclosure of broadband data. See “What Disconnect?,” and “Hiding the Broadband Map.”

The Aftermath: Kevin Martin and Me

Unfortunately, the Center lost the lawsuit when Judge Huvelle ruled against the Center in August 2007, and again in October 2007 after a motion for reconsideration. I’ll talk briefly in Tuesday’s blog post about the founding of BroadbandCensus.com in the aftermath of this defeat, and on Wednesday about BroadbandCensus.com’s efforts, in 2008, to advance public and transparent broadband.

But it’s worth fast-forwarding to get to the end of the Kevin Martin story.

Martin’s tenure at the FCC was marked by his repeated jokes about how he led the FCC like the KGB. That would seem to be of a piece with denying Freedom of Information Act requests like the one I initiated.

Yet I never anticipated just how pointed his criticism of public and transparent broadband data could be. I had been invited to speak at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ and the FCC’s joint conference on broadband deployment and data at the FCC, in San Jose, on November 6, 2008 – two days after the presidential election.

In my presentation, on the background to and requirements of the Broadband Data Improvement Act, I referred to the Center’s FOIA lawsuit, quoted in the section above, about how the FCC didn’t want disclosure of carrier data to lead to greater competition. Kevin Martin interrupted my presentation seven times! He disagreed with my characterization of the FCC’s position on broadband data.

“It was actually also because the carriers do not want it to be disclosed, and so it was not provided in a public way,” Martin first interjected. I disagreed with him, saying that “The FCC chose through its discretion over a period of time not to release information about carrier by carrier level.”

To which Martin replied, “I am not going to have an argument with you over it. I think we should move on…. This is not about FOIA litigation.  No one is interested in that.”

I came back with, “I am just pointing out that the law does not need to be changed for the FCC to release this data.”

And that still isn’t the end of the story.

Two weeks later, on November 18, 2008, Kevin Martin was back in Washington for what appeared to be his final swan song: accepting an award at the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies at the National Press Club. Martin gave his remarks, and was praised by the Phoenix Center. After chatting with journalists for a few minutes, we all went our separate ways.

Later, as I was walking over to the elevator to depart, I saw the elevator door closing on Kevin Martin and his long-time chief of staff, Dan Gonzalez.

Martin opened the doors by pushing the open button, and I walked in. Martin asked me what I had in my hands. It was a box with flyers, so I handed him a flyer from BroadbandCensus.com, and told him a bit about our next upcoming activity as the elevator went to the ground floor.

As we stepped into the lobby, I asked Martin if he had a nice trip back from the broadband data conference in San Jose.

He chuckled somewhat under his breath, and then said: “You may not believe this, but I think what you are doing is a good thing. I just can’t end up giving it to you.”

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2 Responses to “BroadbandCensus.com: Leading the Charge for Public and Transparent Data”

  1. Broadband Census Launches BroadbandBreakfast.com for News; Keeps BroadbandCensus.com For Public and Transparent Data Collection | BroadbandBreakfast.com Says:

    [...] series of five blog posts, I’ve highlighted the history of BroadbandCensus.com. We’ve been leading the charge for public and transparent broadband data for more than three years. In that time, much has changed [...]

  2. BroadbandCensus.com Sees Hope in NTIA’s Request for Form 477 Database | BroadbandBreakfast.com Says:

    [...] Part 1: The debate begins with the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2006. • Part 2: The founding of [...]

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