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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.”

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

Julio Fuentes: Access Delayed Was Access Denied to the Poorest Americans

Big Telecom companies caused months and months of delays in the rollout of the Emergency Broadband Benefit.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Julio Fuentes, president and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

Remember when millions of students in dense urban areas and less-populated rural areas weren’t dependent on home broadband access so they could attend school?

Remember when we didn’t need telehealth appointments, and broadband access in urban and outlying areas was an issue that could be dealt with another day?

Remember when the capability to work remotely in underserved communities wasn’t the difference between keeping a job and losing it?

Not anymore.

Education. Health care. Employment. The COVID-19 pandemic affected them all, and taking care of a family in every respect required broadband access and technology to get through large stretches of the pandemic.

You’d think the Federal Communications Commission and its then-acting chairwoman would have pulled out all the stops to make sure that this type of service was available to as many people as possible, as soon as possible — especially when there’s a targeted federally funded program for that important purpose.

Alas, by all appearances, some Big Telecom companies threw their weight around and caused months and months of delays, denying this life-changing access to the people who needed it most — at the time they needed it most.

The program in question is the federally funded Emergency Broadband Benefit program. The EBB offered eligible households — often the poorest Americans — a discount of up to $50 per month toward broadband service, and those households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop or other computer if they contribute just $10 to the purchase. Huge value and benefits for technology that should no longer be the privilege of only those with resources.

Seems fairly straightforward, right?

It should have been. But FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel slammed on the brakes. Why? It turns out that Big Telecom giants wanted more time to get ready to grab a piece of the action — a lot more time. While the program was ready to go in February, it didn’t actually launch until several months later.

That’s months of unnecessary delay.

But it wasn’t providers who were waiting. It was Americans in underserved and rural areas, desperate for a connection to the world.

Here are some numbers for Rosenworcel to consider:

  • As recently as March, 58% of white elementary students were enrolled for full-time in-person instruction, while only 36% of Black students, 35% of Latino students, and 18% of Asian peers were able to attend school in person.
  • Greater portions of families of color and low-income families reportedly fell out of contact with their children’s schools during the pandemic. In one national survey in spring 2020, nearly 30% of principals from schools serving “large populations of students of color and students from lower-income households” said they had difficulty reaching some of their students and/or families — in contrast to the 14% of principals who said the same in wealthier, predominantly white schools.
  • In fall 2020, only 61% of households with income under $25,000 reported that the internet was “always available” for their children to use for educational purposes; this share was 86% among households with incomes above $75,000.

And all of these numbers cut across other key issues such as health care and maintaining employment.

Access delayed was access denied to the poorest, most isolated Americans during the worst pandemic in generations.

Allowing Big Telecom companies to get their ducks in a row (and soak up as many federal dollars as possible) left poor and rural Americans with no options, for months. Who knows how many children went without school instruction? Or how many illnesses went undiagnosed? Or how many jobs were terminated?

This delay was appalling, and Chairwoman Rosenworcel should have to answer for her actions to the Senate Commerce Committee as it considers her nomination for another term as commissioner. Rather than expedite important help to people who needed it most, she led the agency’s delay — for the benefit of giant providers, not the public.

Hopefully, the committee moves with more dispatch than she did in considering her actual fitness to be FCC chairwoman for another term.

Julio Fuentes is president and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. 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

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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