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

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

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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.”

Digital Inclusion

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk: Three Keys to Building Transformative Broadband Plans

‘While the federal government’s infrastructure funding creates unique opportunities, it also exposes challenges that states and tribes must get in front of to ensure that funding is sustainable and implementation is effective.’

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Samantha Schartman-Cycyk, President of the Marconi Society

This week, I am thrilled to join state, local and tribal leaders from across the U.S. as we convene in Cleveland, Ohio, for the Broadband Access Summit. As a local and long-time advocate for digital inclusion, I am proud that the Pew Charitable Trusts and Next Century Cities selected Cleveland, one of the least connected cities in the country, as the site for a timely conversation about how we can effectively spend the unprecedented levels of federal funding for broadband infrastructure.

While the federal government’s infrastructure funding creates unique opportunities, it also exposes challenges that states and tribes must get in front of to ensure that funding is sustainable and implementation is effective.

The good news is that digital equity is finally front and center—where it belongs—and it has taken nearly twenty years of advocacy and practice to get us to this point.

Following are three key lessons I have learned to ensure efforts to expand connectivity are community oriented and sustainable.

1. Bring in local leadership—now

Across the country, areas that have a dedicated local leadership responsible solely for digital equity and inclusion are outpacing their counterparts. Someone, or ideally a team, needs to wake up every day thinking about what digital equity means in their community, how to make a reality in a way that supports key priorities, and where the true needs are. We have seen benefits in cities such as Detroit and Seattle, who have taken this approach.

We must support these leaders with accurate data. At the Marconi Society, a nonprofit that champions digital equity, I helped launch the National Broadband Mapping Coalition to help leaders from rural communities and urban ‘digital deserts’ identify broadband gaps. The NBMC has developed a no-cost mapping toolkit to help educate and guide communities.

2. Plan for sustainability while you have strong funding

We need to anchor digital inclusion efforts to long-term state programs to solidify funding and reinforce the intersectional impact of digital inclusion. Typically, digital inclusion programs blossom within the period of investment but falter when funding runs out, only to peak again when new grants or federal money become available.

This process wastes resources, relationships, and time, resulting in stop-and-start programs that aren’t able to address residents’ needs nor build momentum.

For example, a state like Maine with an older rural population is likely to prioritize services that allow for aging in place and telemedicine care for seniors. States like Utah or Texas, with relatively young populations, might place a higher priority on education and K–12 STEM pipelines. This alignment will allow state leaders to prioritize and bake sustainability into their broadband plans, create digital equity programs that support their priorities, and incorporate data collection into their work.

3. Create the workforce your state will need

In order to implement strong broadband plans that create true digital equity, state and local governments need a pipeline of people who understand the unique intersection of technology, policy, and grassroots digital inclusion work needed to bridge the digital divide. As of last year, nearly 20 states did not even have a dedicated broadband office to begin this work. With funding already being dispersed to states, we are at a critical moment.

To help create this workforce, the Marconi Society conceptualized and is developing the first-ever “Digital Inclusion Leadership” professional certificate with Arizona State University. The program will launch in Fall 2022 and will include top-ranked professors and leading industry experts as teachers and advisors.

I believe that this interdisciplinary workforce will continue to be in high demand as states integrate digital equity into their long-term priorities.

After years of helping to lay the groundwork for the current burst of funding and activity around digital equity, I can say that our work has only just begun. We have the gift of beginning with knowledge and funding that can be truly transformative. The digitally equitable future we are fighting for is closer than it has ever been before—let’s make sure we get this right.

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk is President of the Marconi Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing digitally equitable communities by empowering change agents across sectors. Over her 20-year career, she has built forward-thinking programs and tools to drive impact on digital inclusion at the local and national levels, through projects with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), community training, and data collecting efforts. The Marconi Society celebrates and supports visionaries building tomorrow’s technologies upon the foundation of a connected world we helped create. 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 expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Broadband's Impact

Debra Berlyn: Online Shopping is Here to Stay for Older Adults

Helpful tips for safe shopping this summer.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Debra Berlyn, executive director of Project GOAL

Summertime and online shopping can be easy – and safe – for everyone, particularly older adults.

As a result of the unexpected years of the pandemic, there has been a seismic shift in consumers’ adoption of technology to purchase products and services. There has also been a growing acceptance of technology by older consumers who were forced to adopt an online existence as access to the outside world around them quickly shuttered.

Today, the aging community is growing more familiar and comfortable with technology.

Consumers continue to embrace e-commerce, spending $871.78 billion in 2021 in online transactions, a growth of over 14% from the previous year.  The pandemic also served to increase these dollars, particularly among older adults who recognized the ease, convenience, and safety of shopping from home.

A significant overall force in the marketplace, the “buying power potential” of older adults, in general, has been growing in the past decade. In 2018, consumers 50 and older spent $7.6 trillion, accounting for 56 percent of overall U.S. spending.

For older adults, the significant shift from traditional brick-and-mortar stores to online retail continues to move forward. The 65+ community has jumped into the game and today they wield ever-increasing online retail power.

In 2020, many of those 65+ were averaging $187 in online shopping per month.  It’s also clear the online shopping habits that started during COVID-19 are not going to disappear anytime in the near or distant future.

Unfortunately, just as online spending has increased, so have the opportunities for fraudsters to build new tactics to scam significant dollars from unsuspecting online users.  All consumers need to have the proper tools to ensure they can feel confident when engaging in online retail.

In particular, older adults will benefit from having clear information on how to shop safe online.

Solutions for Older Adults to Engage in E-Commerce with Tips to Stay Safe and Additional Resources

Seven Tips to Shop Safe Online:

1) Always use a trusted online shopping “store” for your purchases and beware of phony online shopping sites that often reside on social media sites and may offer enticing prices.

Beware of phony online shopping sites and check out any unfamiliar stores with the Better Business Bureau. Consider trusted online stores like Amazon, which offers an A-to-z Guarantee for items purchased on their site that can help resolve issues with third-party vendors.

2) It’s best to use a credit card for your purchases.

If you purchase an item on your credit card, you can always then dispute that charge. Federal law limits liability to $50 if there’s an unauthorized charge to your account, and if you report it to your credit card company as soon as you discover it, they often will remove it entirely.

3) Make sure you’re on a secure site when entering financial information during your purchase transactions.

Always make sure you’re on a secure site before entering financial or other sensitive information. Look for the address bar “http” to shift to “https” when asked to input financial information, such as a credit card number. This indicates it will be transmitted securely.

4) Protect your privacy and security.

Engage the privacy settings, “cookies” choices, and clear your history on a regular basis to avoid unwanted marketing from companies.

5) Watch out for online “phishing scams” that can target older adults.

Scammers use email or text messages that look like they’re from a company you know or trust, such as your bank, credit card company, or an online store. Phishing emails request your personal information, such as a log-in or Social Security number to verify your account, or may ask that you update your credit card payment.  Then they use that information to steal your personal and financial information.

To avoid a phishing scam, carefully check the email address to see if it’s from the company (the email address is often incorrect or is off by a letter or two). Some companies have implemented email verification technology to make it easier to identify legitimate emails. For example, if customers see the ‘Smile’ logo next to emails coming from an @amazon.com sender, that will indicate that the email came from Amazon – not a scammer.

Click here to see if your email provider supports this technology. A dose of healthy skepticism is in order if you receive any unsolicited emails asking for your personal and/or financial information.

6) Keep this adage in mind: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is!

Be careful of unsolicited email come-ons and special deals that ask you to “click here.” They can take you to illegitimate sellers or scams.

7) Report any scams or fraud that you experience online.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC): Report a Fraud, Scam, or Problem with a Company:

For additional information on online shopping safety, check out these helpful websites: 

Debra Berlyn serves as the executive director of The Project to Get Older Adults onLine (GOAL), and she is also the president of Consumer Policy Solutions. She represented AARP on telecom issues and the digital television transition and has worked closely with national aging organizations on several internet issues, including online safety and privacy concerns.  She serves as vice chair of the Federal Communications Commission’s Consumer Advisory Committee and is on the board of the National Consumers League and is a board member and senior fellow with the Future of Privacy Forum. 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 expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Expert Opinion

Rahul Sen Sharma: The Metaverse is Not Web 3.0

The Metaverse is at the forefront of developments in seamless payments and richer information flows.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Rahul Sen Sharma, managing partner at Indxx.

Web 3.0 is a concept for the next generation of internet architecture that envisions a decentralized ecosystem based on blockchain technology. It is an evolution of how users would control, own, and manage their online content, digital assets and identities.

Web 3.0 marks a departure from the centralized mega platforms and corporations that currently dominate the Web 2.0 ecosystem.

The Metaverse is at the forefront of the Web 3.0 internet revolution. It can be defined as a set of interconnected, experience driven 3D virtual worlds where users can socialize in real-time to form a persistent and thriving user-owned internet economy regardless of any physical or geographical constraints.

Both the technologies of Web 3.0 and Metaverse support each other perfectly. Even though the Metaverse is a virtual space whereas Web 3.0 favours a decentralized web, it could form the basis for connectivity in the Metaverse. While the development of the Metaverse is in nascent stages, the exponential growth of non-fungible tokens, P2E (Play to Earn) games and decentralised autonomous organisations have boosted the development of Web 3.0.

A future involving distributed and anonymous users

Web 3.0 envisions a future involving distributed anonymous users and machines interacting without the need for an intermediary, to form a composable human-centric and privacy preserving computing fabric.

These interactions would range from seamless payments and richer information flows, to trusted data transfers via a mechanism of peer-to-peer networks without the need for third parties.

The shift should lead to a wave of new business models that bypass the existing global co-operatives that we currently have, and replace them with decentralised, autonomous organisations and self-sovereign data marketplaces.

As mentioned, Web3 is built on blockchain technology and DAOs rather than the current model of centralized servers owned by large corporations. In the same way, the ideal structure of the Metaverse is also full decentralisation.

The technologies behind achieving decentralization would be distributed ledgers and blockchain technology which enables value-exchange between softwares, self-sovereign identities and the creation of a transparent and secure environment.

The blockchain is central to the Metaverse, and to Web 3.0

In an ideal form, both Web 3.0 and the Metaverse takes advantage of blockchain to give unrestricted, permissionless access to everyone with an internet connection.

Currently, development towards the Metaverse is being spearheaded by big tech corporations such as Meta, Microsoft, Nvidia, and more, all of which are major players in Web 2.0. The model of centralised Metaverse being built by them involves closed ecosystems that are only designed to extract value at the expense of their most valuable assets – users, content creators and customers.

This contrasts with the envisioned form of Metaverse and Web 3.0 with decentralization, interoperability and seamless interaction between different virtual worlds and the real world.

Still, the big tech corporations are investing resources into their Metaverse development and have their own vision and plans for what the Metaverse would be.

Meanwhile, decentralized Metaverses and Web3 initiatives are currently attracting record investment, pulling in around $30 billion in venture capital last year alone.

As we shift to what will likely be a more decentralized web, the creator economy is also evolving and likely to become a multibillion-dollar industry with immense potential for creators and publishers.

The creator economy in the Metaverse can supplement the vision of web 3.0 for developing a new financial world with decentralized solutions.

In Web 3.0, users can create content while owning, controlling, and monetizing them through the implementation of blockchain and cryptocurrencies. However, the model of this creator economy is likely to disrupt the business models of many current big-tech corporations.

Regardless, the Metaverse requires both big tech companies to build the technology and the creator economy to produce interesting content for driving engagement. Partnerships, reduced platform fees and creative commissions by big tech to creators within the metaverse can be a way to stimulate the already fast-growing creator economy.

Rahul Sen Sharma is a managing partner at Indxx and has been instrumental in leading the firm’s growth since 2011. He manages Indxx’s Sales, Client Engagement, Marketing and Branding teams while also helping to set the firm’s overall strategic objectives and vision. Prior to joining Indxx, Rahul was the Director of Investment Research for RR Advisory Group (now part of Mariner Wealth Advisors), a full service private wealth management firm based in New York that caters to high net worth individuals. 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 expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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