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Want Better Broadband in America? Take the Broadband Census!

Commentary WASHINGTON, July 15 – Most Americans who have high-speed Internet can’t imagine life without broadband. How could you connect to the Internet of today without it? In today’s world, broadband is as basic as running water and electricity. And yet the U.S. is falling behind globally.

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The following commentary appears in the current issue of Opastco Advocate, a monthly newsletter published by the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies. Reprinted by permission.

By Drew Clark, Executive Director, BroadbandCensus.com

Most Americans who have high-speed Internet can’t imagine life without broadband. How could you connect to the Internet of today without it? In today’s world, broadband is as basic as running water and electricity. And yet the U.S. is falling behind globally. As a technology reporter, I’ve been writing about the battles over broadband and the Internet for nearly a decade in Washington. Yet there is one fact about which nearly everyone seems to be in agreement: if America wants better broadband, America needs better broadband data.

That’s why I’ve recently started a new venture to collect this broadband data, and to make this data freely available for all on the Web, at http://BroadbandCensus.com.

The information and news that is available for free at BroadbandCensus.com is more important now than ever before. The FCC has just made important changes to how it will collect data from carriers. The agency may make even more significant changes in the near future. Public and private sector groups of all stripes are demanding, ever more loudly, that government take steps toward a national broadband policy. That cannot be done without solid information about broadband. Finally, many large carriers are beginning to implement plans to meter out bandwidth in tiers and with usage caps. This marketplace development makes the mission of an independent monitoring Website like BroadbandCensus.com even more critical.

BroadbandCensus.com Serves Consumers, Policymakers, and Carriers

BroadbandCensus.com is designed to help three constituencies: Internet consumers, policymakers, and broadband carriers focused on customer satisfaction. In the long term, we believe that the interests of carriers are aligned with those of their customers and their potential customers.

Internet users benefit by being able to measure and understand information about the availability, competition, speeds and prices of broadband within their areas. When an Internet user goes to the BroadbandCensus.com Website, he or she types in a ZIP code. By doing so, the consumer will find out how many broadband providers the FCC says are available. The consumer can compare that number to his or her own sense of the competitive landscape, as well as the names of the carriers published by BroadbandCensus.com.

The site then invites visitors to Take the Broadband Census! This is a short questionnaire, and it is followed by a free Internet speed test. Each consumer that takes the census puts in their ZIP code, or their ZIP+4 code, selects their broadband carrier from a drop-down menu, and rates that company’s performance on a scale of one to five stars.

The consumer then has the opportunity to add their own comments about the carrier. They may then take a bandwidth speed test. Each of these steps adds data into BroadbandCensus.com. That means that the next visitor to the Website will be better informed about the availability, competition, speeds and customer service of their local broadband options. It also produces a free database of consumer data about more than 1,600 broadband carriers in the U.S.

BroadbandCensus.com also aims to aid policymakers crafting sensible broadband policies based on solid research. We have a contract with the Pew Internet and American Life Project to contribute our information and research to their annual broadband report, and we are working with other broadband researchers around the country.

Consider just three hot-button broadband issues: the Universal Service Fund; whether carriers are engaged in blocking or degrading Internet traffic; and ensuring that all sections of the country – rural as well as inner-city – are digitally included in our broadband world. Better data about competition, speeds and prices are necessary to craft each of these policies. This is what we aim to provide, free of charge, to policymakers on the federal, state and local level, as well as to the public at large.

BroadbandCensus.com is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial License. That means that the contents of the site are available, for free, for all to view, copy, redistribute and reuse provided that attribution is made to BroadbandCensus.com, and that such use is done for non-commercial purposes. This is more than just legalese. It means that government agencies and university researchers can benefit from our platform showcasing the best and most accurate broadband data publicly available. State, county and regional development agencies, for example, may republish our data through their own Websites so long as they attribute it to BroadbandCensus.com.

Putting Carrier-Level Information Into BroadbandCensus.com

BroadbandCensus.com aims to collect information from the bottom up. This helps to keep the Internet consumer at the center of the broadband experience. But carriers are obviously integral to this process. We seek to build upon the relationships that we have with dozens of carriers. We also want to form new relationships with hundreds more carriers, such as yourselves. Rural carriers and other special providers of broadband are natural candidates to work with BroadbandCensus.com. We want to build constructive ties with all of you.

The data within BroadbandCensus.com is aggregated from at least four sources: (1) “bottom-up” data from consumers; (2) publicly available information about which providers offer broadband service within each ZIP code; (3) FCC data about the number of broadband providers in each ZIP code; and (4) local broadband information collected and published by state and county regulators.

We also seek information about the availability, prices and speeds that are offered by OPASTCO’s member carriers. Only individuals can make service ratings and measure actual Internet speeds, of course. But carriers are far more likely to have the most up-to-date information about the ZIP codes, and the ZIP+4 codes, in which they offer service. Carriers are also better suited to provide pricing data and information about the speed tiers that they offer to their consumers.

Would each of you be willing to provide us with information about the areas that you serve, the speeds at which you offer services, and the prices at which you sell those services?

Some carriers may resist the notion that they should provide information about where they offer service, let alone the prices at which they do so, on a public Website. Doing so, they believe, would simply aid their competitors. This kind of thinking isn’t uncommon in the business world today. But it is at odds with the notion of radical transparency being followed by many of the most successful technology and communications companies.

The April 2007 issue of Wired magazine cast a spotlight on this development. “You can’t hide anything anymore,” said Don Tapscott, co-author of The Naked Corporation, about corporate openness, as well as Wikinomics, in the piece. “Trying to hide something illicit – trying to hide anything, really – is an unwise gamble,” said Clive Thompson, author of the article entitled “The See-Through CEO.” “Transparency is a judo move,” Thompson continued. “Your customers are going to poke around in your business anyway…so why not make it work for you by turning everyone into a partner in the process and inviting them to do so?”

BroadbandCensus.com agrees. Consumers are going to find out where you offer service. Indeed, they must know in order to get service! They will also find out whether or not you deliver on your promised speeds, and whether or not other customers out there are satisfied or dissatisfied. The Internet simply provides all of these individuals with the wherewithall – the virtual gathering space, if you will – to come together and talk about you. Transparency about broadband availability, competition, speeds and prices is the raison d’être for BroadbandCensus.com. But it doesn’t benefit anyone to close the doors of communication with you, the telecom carriers.

Take the issue of broadband pricing. Many different broadband service providers offer different bundles and pricing plans for different speeds and service options. This creates a myriad of choices involving voice and video (with many different channel options and prices), as well as additional services, such as wireless data, home security and maintenance services, etc. This complicated patchwork of options is one reason that BroadbandCensus.com has held off, for now, with systematically collecting “bottom up” data about broadband prices. Consumers are the best gauge of customer service – but they may not remember all of the services they take. They also may not accurately report the prices for the packages that they buy.

It would be better to get this pricing and bundle options information directly from carriers. We have built a back-end interface on BroadbandCensus.com that allows carriers who wish to participate the ability to upload information about locations, prices and offered speeds. We are still working on the best way to display prices within a particular ZIP code or ZIP+4 code. We are more than open to your suggestions on this matter.

Participation in the Broadband Census is completely optional. Carriers that choose not to participate are identified, on our Website, as “[Particular carrier] does not provide the Broadband Census with local Internet information.” When carriers do participate, that label does not appear.

Understanding the Speed Test

BroadbandCensus.com was officially launched on Jan. 31, 2008, and we launched the beta version of our speed test on Feb. 21, 2008. For our beta speed test, we use NDT, or the Network Diagnostic Tool, an open-source speed test under active development by the research consortium Internet2. We have assembled thousands of speed tests, census entries and comments from everyday Internet uses – all of which are freely accessible at BroadbandCensus.com. We are well aware of the great diversity of results obtained through our beta speed test. We understand that many variables, including network configuration, Internet congestion, and customer equipment, affect the actual speed test results. We strive to be as transparent as possible about the technology that we are using to conduct our speed tests, and to help publicize the methodology employed by our version of the NDT speed test.

Policy Agenda for a Broadband Census

BroadbandCensus.com builds on the momentum behind federal, state and local efforts to collect more detailed information about broadband. Consider that Rep. Ed Markey, (D-Mass.), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, has introduced legislation that would provide the public with better broadband information. Markey’s Broadband Census of America Act, H.R. 3919, has passed the House of Representatives and is still before the Senate.

In addition to providing money for state initiatives to map out broadband, the Broadband Census of America Act calls for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to create a publicly available map of broadband deployment. The map would feature not only broadband availability, but also “each commercial provider or public provider of broadband service capability.”

Sen. Richard Durbin, (D-Ill.) has introduced S. 1190, the “Connect the Nation Act.” Durbin’s bill would authorize $40 million a year, for five years, for state efforts to map out broadband inventory on the census block level. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, (D-Hawaii) has introduced S. 1492, the Broadband Data Improvement Act, which takes a similar approach. The goal, stated in the identical language of both bills, is to “identify and track the availability and adoption of broadband services within each state.” Neither of these bills has cleared the chamber.

Additionally, the broadband data bills have been inspired by a growing movement in the states to map out broadband availability within their territories. This effort began with Connect Kentucky, a non-profit initiative designed to compile statistics about regional broadband deployment. In partnership with the regional Bell operating companies and cable operators, Connect Kentucky identified gaps in coverage and underserved areas. It is now replicating its efforts in Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and South Carolina. Other groups unconnected to Connect Kentucky are engaged in similar mapping efforts, including the California Broadband Task Force and Massachusetts Broadband Initiative.

Now the FCC will be drilling into broadband availability information in greater detail. On June 12, the agency released an order requiring broadband providers to report the number of subscribers they have, not only in each ZIP code (as has been required since 2000), but also in each Census tract.

This is a welcome development. We applaud those who have pushed the FCC to collect more granular data. As soon as the agency collects, and then releases, information about broadband availability within a particular Census tract, we will immediately include this additional information in BroadbandCensus.com. ZIP codes are larger than Census tracts, and Census tracts are larger than ZIP+4 codes. While BroadbandCensus.com currently displays data at the ZIP code level, in the future we will display data at the ZIP+4 code level – and that will also include the Census tract level. Knowing where broadband is and is not available is indeed the first step toward making sure that broadband truly is accessible to all Americans.

But availability alone doesn’t go far enough. The next steps include understanding broadband competition, broadband speeds and broadband prices. On this score, BroadbandCensus.com has criticized the FCC’s order as inadequate to help consumers know and understand their broadband options. Because the agency continues to exclude carrier information from the public data that it releases, Internet consumers are not likely to benefit from the more granular information collection. The FCC appears to acknowledge this limitation. The order included a “further notice” section in which the agency seeks comments on whether, and how, it should conduct information about delivered speeds and prices.

Conclusion

Fleshing out this complete picture – broadband availability, competition, speeds, prices and customer service – is the long-term goal of BroadbandCensus.com. By including the names of carriers, and by allowing consumers to rate their service quality, BroadbandCensus.com will enable Internet users to make true headto- head comparisons. We believe that these types of comparisons are an essential part of understanding connectedness, fostering a competitive Internet, and in building a national broadband strategy for America. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at drew at broadbandcensus.com.

Articles Referenced in this Article:

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney at The CommLaw Group. He has closely tracked the trends in and mechanics of digital infrastructure for 20 years, and has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers navigate coverage, identify markets, broker infrastructure, and operate in the public right of way. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast 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.

Broadband's Impact

Sunne McPeak: Achieving True Digital Equity Requires Strong Leadership and Sincere Collaboration

Collaboration between community leaders will be essential in ensuring success of the Biden infrastructure bill in California.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Sunne Wright McPeak

This week, President Joe Biden signed the infrastructure bill, which includes $65 billion for expanding broadband deployment and access for all Americans.

The national plan is described as the most significant infrastructure upgrade in the three decades since the Cold War. “This is an opportunity to create an Eisenhower national highway system for the information age,” says a former White House National Security Council senior director.

For California – the nation’s largest state – it means a minimum $100 million for broadband infrastructure that is designed to expand high-speed internet access for at least 545,000 residents, particularly in unserved and underserved communities, according to the White House. The federal funding will support California’s $6 billion broadband infrastructure plan.

Closing the digital divide and achieving true digital equity requires strong leadership and sincere collaboration among public agencies, internet service providers and civic leaders to seize this unique opportunity to achieve strategic priorities in education, telehealth, transportation and economic development. The 2021 USC-CETF Statewide Survey on Broadband Adoption highlighted that a significant number of Californians will be left behind because they are unable to access the internet and other digital functionality needed for vital activities.

Now, the question is how to ensure the public’s funds will be used as effectively and efficiently as possible. California must implement a thoughtful, aggressive strategy that will maximize immediate impact and optimize return on investment. Separately, for several years, CETF has been calling for broadband deployment as a green strategy for sustainability; that urgency only grows in the wake of the COP26 climate meetings. As leaders begin to make historic investments, they should embrace these key principles for action:

  • Prioritize and drive infrastructure construction to the hardest-to-reach residents — rural unserved areas, tribal lands, and poor urban neighborhoods — and then connect all locations, especially anchor institutions (schools, libraries and health care facilities), along the path of deployment.
  • Require open-access fiber middle-mile infrastructure with end-user internet speeds sufficient to support distance learning and telehealth.
  • Strive to achieve ubiquitous deployment in each region to avoid cherry picking for more lucrative areas.
  • Encourage coordination among local governments and regional agencies to streamline permitting and achieve economies of scale.
  • Develop an open competitive process to achieve the most cost-effective investment of new dollars by optimizing use of existing infrastructure that ratepayers and taxpayers already have built.

To learn more, please contact Sunne Wright McPeak at sunne.mcpeak@cetfund.org

Sunne Wright McPeak is President and CEO of California Emerging Technology Fund, a statewide non-profit foundation with 15 years of experience addressing broadband issues to close the Digital Divide in California. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC. 

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Broadband's Impact

Frank Gornick: Valley Leaders Join State to Bring Ubiquitous Broadband to the San Joaquin Valley

Bringing internet capability to communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley is the focus of a new effort.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Frank Gornick.

As the pandemic begins to recede, it leaves behind warnings of weak links in our overall health as a functioning society. The signs are everywhere: health care, water, infrastructure, education, supply chains and equitable access to technology and opportunity.

Under the guidance of the San Joaquin Regional Broadband Consortium, and with support from the California Emerging Technology Fund, our goal is to bring ubiquitous broadband to the eight counties that compromise the San Joaquin Valley, among the most underserved regions of the state and underestimated in ability to lead and drive change.

And we will do it within a year — a bold but doable achievement.

As a start, we are announcing a new partnership, #SanJoaquinValleyNetwork, which will seek the necessary resources to deliver a world class internet to enhance the economic and human conditions because our leaders want no less for our citizens.

To be clear, this is a significant undertaking with many moving parts. Therefore, understanding the players and the territory is essential.

Understanding the infrastructure landscape is critical

It begins by identifying what internet infrastructure currently exists and assessing the internet’s capacity in the eight counties. Where is it robust and, where is it lacking.

Why this year? There is political will and the funds to do it.

In July, the governor signed SB 156, which authorizes the state to work with counties, internet service providers, school districts, hospitals, libraries, businesses, manufacturers, farmers and municipalities. The goal is to develop a statewide open-access, middle-mile broadband network, including creating rural exchange points with last-mile access to homes, businesses and essential services.

The good news is that we are building upon the existing network, not starting over. Therefore, these expenditures will be much more efficient and effective.

In addition to the clearly stated intent of the legislation, state leaders have provided $6 billion for implementation.

Continuing into November, the San Joaquin Valley counties will be organizing and planning under the auspices of SJVRBC to obtain the maximum amount of financial assistance to implement the goals of #SanJoaquinValleyNetwork.

Applying for federal grant dollars in San Joaquin Valley

As this effort gets underway, #SanJoaquinValleyNetwork will begin applying for federal and state dollars to realize our goal, bringing ubiquitous broadband to the Valley in a year.

What outcomes can we expect? First, as we have learned from the pandemic, we must do more to expand deployment and access because it is critical for so many people to have reliable, robust connections to the services they need and to access new opportunities. However, not everyone has equal access.

The internet has provided greater access to health care, but not everyone has equal access, particularly seniors, low income households and rural residents. Students at all grades for the past 18 months have had to adjust to online learning, but not everyone has equal access or capacity required to succeed and gain the skills to join the workforce of the future.

Our economic engine, the agricultural industry, has relied on breakthrough technologies that depend on high speed internet, and dependability and access to the internet is necessary for growth and productivity.

The investment to extend broadband to the most remote and underserved communities will raise the standard of living of many — and the quality of life for everyone in the San Joaquin Valley.

Billions of dollars in California and across the country will be invested in deploying internet infrastructure to rural, tribal and urban neighborhoods in poverty. Construction of publicly subsidized, open-access middle-mile infrastructure that includes last-mile deployment achieves the best of both objectives — ensuring immediate internet access for businesses and residents. That’s why business, education and civic leaders throughout the San Joaquin Valley are applauding this effort.

We urge leaders in Kern, Tulare, Kings, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin counties to join this effort.

For more information on the #SanJoaquinValleyPartnership, please contact Dr. Frank Gornick at frankgornick@comcast.net, 559-281-5200.

Dr. Frank Gornick is the chancellor emeritus of West Hills Community College District, where he served as chancellor for 16 years. He is the project manager of the #SanJoaquinValleyNetwork and lives in Lemoore. This piece is reprinted from The Fresno Bee with permission.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Expert Opinion

Will Rinehart: Early Reports Show the Emergency Broadband Benefit is Not Reaching Its Intended Audience

A new county-level data and maps will help researchers and leaders understand impacts of the EBB program.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Will Rinehart of the Center for Growth and Opportunity

Late last year, Congress set aside $3.14 billion to help low income households pay for broadband service and connected internet devices. In May, the Federal Communications Commission went live with the Emergency Broadband Benefit  Program, which now includes over 6.4 million enrolled households. But the program is temporary and slated to end either when funds are exhausted or six months after the end of the COVID-19 health emergency.

Since Congress is likely to extend the program through the infrastructure bill, policymakers need to understand the full extent of the program’s impact. To this end, we are releasing a county-level dataset for researchers and leaders alike that will help everyone better understand the EBB program. As many had hoped, our analysis of these enrollments suggests they are going towards low income communities.

Paradoxically, however, the program is not going towards communities where there is little uptake of broadband. Early data analysis shows that areas with low broadband uptake are less likely to enroll in the program. If leaders want to connect the unconnected, in addition to low income groups, other programs will be needed. EBB isn’t targeting these low-adoption communities.

The basics of the the Emergency Broadband Benefit

The Emergency Broadband Benefit program provides households up to $50 per month for broadband service. Those living on tribal lands could receive enhanced support of up to $75 per month toward broadband services. The program also provides a one time device discount of up to $100 for a laptop, desktop computer or tablet purchased through a participating provider.

The EBB was funded through the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which was signed on December 27, 2020. Two months later, on February 26, the FCC released a report and order, which established the EBB, laid out the rules of the program and then delegated the authority to the Universal Service Administrative Company, which the FCC created to administer the programs. In May, the new program went live and since then, USAC has released data on the number of households in a claims tracker.

Eligibility comes through one of four ways. First and most important, a household might already meet the qualifications for participation in the Lifeline program. The Lifeline program began in 1984 under Ronald Reagan‘s administration to support telecommunication services for low income households. Through the years, the FCC issued a set of orders extending the scope of the Lifeline program from its origins in plain old telephone service to mobile phones and then mobile internet. Wisely, the FCC has extended the National Verification system to accept new households. The vast majority of EBB enrollments have come through this method, at just under 79 percent.

Otherwise, a household can get the support if they have been approved for free or reduced school lunch or breakfast, experienced a substantial loss of income due to the pandemic, or received a Federal Pell Grant.

The expansion of the EBB program

As of October 10, 2021, around 6.4 million households have enrolled to be a part of the EBB. The first few weeks of the program saw the largest growth period, but that has since decreased. In the first full week of the program, nearly 1 million households signed up, and in the second week half a million followed. Since those first weeks in May, the rate of new signups each week has dropped to about 200,000 new non-tribal homes and about 2,000 tribal homes. The graph below charts the number of new enrollments each week, combining both tribal and non-tribal households.

Getting support to 6.4 million households has cost $600 million so far, $546 million of which went to service support and $53.9 million went to devices. But not every household is taking the full amount of support. The current utilization rate is about 75 percent of the maximum allowed. Most people aren’t taking the full $50 support.

Assuming that this growth rate continues, the number of households enrolled might grow to 10 million in January. If the infrastructure bill is not signed, the program might run out as early as April 2022. Less aggressive estimates of growth only push out the termination date just a month longer to May. Finally, assuming that no more people are added to the program, the $3 billion mark will be reached in July. This last assumption provides a baseline for comparison. Congress, however, seems poised to pass the infrastructure bill, which would extend the program with another $14 billion.

The reach of the EBB

To make the data more approachable, October's release has been converted from ZIP code data provided by USAC to county-level data using Housing and Urban Development crosswalks. It is available in the graph below.

Early analysis of the EBB data from Scott Wallsten at the Technology Policy Institute “suggests that areas with higher shares of low income households with broadband are signing up at lower rates than elsewhere.” In the Appendix attached to this post, the results of a new study that I conducted are detailed. It aims to chart the relationship among EBB enrollments, the percent of low income homes in a region, and the number of homes without Internet access. In contrast to Wallsten, it found that enrollments maintain a positive relationship with poverty, which makes sense. More poverty in a region should mean that the area is receiving more assistance through EBB.

But it also found that enrollments were negatively connected to the number of households without broadband in a region. Although there are many possible reasons for this finding, it should give leaders pause that areas with more people offline have fewer EBB enrollments. The relationship should be positive. While none of this is the final word on the EBB program, it is clear that the FCC needs to conduct further analysis.

While they are at it, the FCC should also properly study the effectiveness of the Lifeline program, which the Government Accountability Office has recommended since 2015. As I noted previously, “The lesson from policymakers is clear. Cost might be a barrier for some, but lowering cost doesn’t get a lot of people newly connected.” The EBB has been a lifesaver for many, but getting the unconnected onto the internet will require something more.

Will Rinehart is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity, where he specializes in telecommunication, internet and data policy, with a focus on emerging technologies and innovation. He was formerly the Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at the American Action Forum and before that a research fellow at TechFreedom and the director of operations at the International Center for Law & Economics. This piece is reprinted from Utah State University with permission.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC. 

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