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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.”

Expert Opinion

Leo Matysine: The Impact of C-Band on Advancements in Mobile and Fixed Broadband

As technology is more advanced and connected to everything, the need for higher capacity networks will continue to grow exponentially.

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The Author of this Expert Opinion is Leo Matysine, Co-Founder of MatSing

When consumers think of 5G, often their minds automatically think mobile connectivity. The official C-Band launch this past January brought the idea of increased spectrum connectivity into the limelight. While this had been something anticipated by the telecommunications industry for years, finally seeing it come to fruition allowed the mainstream media to become invested in the benefits this 5G spectrum could offer.

When 5G was first introduced five years ago, it caught the attention of many who soon learned the challenge in speedy implementation due to strict infrastructure requirements. The introduction of C-Band provides a solution, enabling 5G upgrades while simultaneously addressing the coverage and capacity needs.

This heightened implementation will allow users to start seeing improvements across the board, but not just in the form of mobile connection. Outside of the benefits for mobile carriers, the advancements C-Band provides will enter in a new era for fixed broadband access especially in rural communities.

The need for fixed broadband was magnified during the pandemic as users need for internet access from home drastically increased. This exposed the digital divide rural communities are facing, causing it to gain traction with the White House. As a result, a new infrastructure bill aimed at improving the underlying network infrastructures was developed as fiber-to-the-home and fiber-to-the-premise in rural settings have proven to be too expensive and impractical for wide implementation.

C-Band provides an alternative option allowing for wireless fixed broadband access through antennas. The mid-band frequency spectrum (1GHz to 6GHz) can provide rural users, both businesses and households, with options in providers and services they’ve been unable to experience previously.

C-Band also allows for higher speed and capacity

On top of the fixed broadband perspective where C-Band frequency spectrums are enabling rural connectivity, it allows for higher speed and capacity. The spectrums being utilized in the past while generating mobile coverage, had disadvantages in capacity and experience.

The mmWave spectrum (24GHz +) can transmit data at hyper speeds but only from limited distances, requiring line-of-site installations, whereas sub-1GHz offers the opposite. The mid-band spectrum C-Band falls under acts as a perfect balance, transmitting data at high speeds and capacities while providing the coverage needed to cover vast areas. Deployed with lens antenna technology, the additional capacity can be enabled with fewer antenna locations as compared to other antenna types, leading to financial advantages.

From a more localized vantage point, C-Band is now being integrated into marquee venues and stadiums. Within these smaller spaces, improved bandwidth and superior performance is essential given the concentrated number of users seeking connection and the inherent need for more content sharing. In order to support the mobile experience fans now expect from these venues, carriers and venue owners have turned to C-Band deployments.

Deployed atop the 4G/LTE foundation, the C-Band antenna builds off this functionality while adding the increased speed and capacity accustomed to the mid-band spectrum. Several venues will see increased results with these implementations allowing fans to experience a more reliable and overall better experience at their game days or concerts in the upcoming months.

Looking ahead, these milestones only mark the beginning of where C-Band implementation will take the telecommunications industry. As technology continues to become more advanced and connected to everyone and everything, the need for higher capacity networks will continue to grow exponentially.

Leo Matysine is the Co-Founder and Executive Vice President of company MatSing, the worlds leading manufacturer of large size, light weight RF lenses. MatSing introduces a new age of antenna design for the Telecommunications industry. 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

Patrice Williams: Reimagining the Future of Work With Digital Plus Human Efforts

‘Digital workers can help in the end-to-end automation of business processes by mimicking human behavior.’

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The Author of this Expert Opinion is Patrice Williams, Business Development Representative at Vuram.

Organizations across geographies are fast-embracing the hybrid and remote working models as they are embracing their digital transformation journeys to navigate the new normal. Adopting a digital workforce is essential to overcome a series of challenges, while it cannot replace humans. The future of work will witness humans operating side-by-side with software robots to pursue business goals and tackle future challenges.

The inclusion of a digital workforce allows organizations to function seamlessly around the clock while addressing labor shortages, learning gaps, upskilling requirements, workforce flexibility, effective crisis management, and profitability.

Who are digital workers?

The digital workforce is a variety of robotic and automated solutions that work in tandem with humans to accomplish tasks that are complex, time-consuming, repetitive, and mundane. They perform complex tasks end to end so that humans can focus on creative, critical, and high-value-added activities. The digital workforce comprises technologies like robotic process automation, cognitive computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and more.

Adopting digital workforce

Globally, when businesses started operating remotely, adopting digital workforce technologies helped organizations to continue operations uninterrupted by functioning seamlessly round the clock and achieving speed and efficiency.

Aided by hyperautomation technologies, the digital workers can help in the end-to-end automation of business processes by mimicking human behavior to perform actions that were previously, typically done only by humans. Following are some of the use cases:

Chatbots are increasingly being used across industries, including healthcare and banking. They can streamline customer support by handling volumes of simple customer queries around the clock, bringing down the costs, and adding efficiency. Interestingly, chatbots are predicted to save $8 billion by 2022 and save 2.5 billion hours by 2023, according to a study by Juniper Research.

Chatbots add efficiency to the new normal set up when people are working in different locations and are reimagining roles focusing on quality and cognitive skills. When integrated with the IT helpdesk, the bots can empower employees to resolve simple issues on their own, thus removing the burden on human employees.

With AI and natural language processing capabilities, these bots can understand the simple language of the users and help them with the right answers. They can help a new joiner complete the onboarding formalities, like filling out forms and helping them with instant answers to common questions about company policies, roles, responsibilities, etc.

The process of onboarding customers is different across industries, be it retail, corporate, banking, or healthcare. Irrespective of the industry, it is one of the most important and complex tasks with compliance checks, stringent regulations, documentation, security, and much more.

For instance, let’s take the bank. It involves several key steps like evaluating the customer’s profiles, recording customer data, performing background checks, fulfilling legal obligations, opening the account, interacting with the customer for any support, and finally, the account becomes operational.

AI can transform business experiences in a post-COVID world

In a post-COVID world where social distancing and other hygienic protocols are at the forefront, AI can transform the banking experience for customers. Digital onboarding can reduce time and costs while addressing the prominent challenges and ensuring compliance. In a digital environment, form fillings can be done automatically with OCR, conversational AI and a virtual assistant can support customers at any time and machine learning can be used to verify customer data across all the documents.

Fighting fraud by detection across stages is a critical part of financial institutions that handle volumes of unstructured data. Manual efforts in identifying, analyzing data, user profiling involves more effort, time, and prone to errors. RPA bot infused with AI and machine learning capabilities can curb financial frauds by monitoring every activity in the process loop and immediately notifying any concerns.

For example, credit scoring can be monitored effectively in the insurance claims process with the bots reviewing customer claims, matching them with the existing data, and monitoring the customer behavior to raise any abnormal behavior patterns. When trained, the bot can prevent money laundering by raising alerts of potentially fraudulent transactions.

Intelligent document processing helps organizations that process or handles several types of documents daily to reap the benefits of intelligent document processing. The process automatically reads, extracts, and analyzes from structured and unstructured data like online forms, resumes, email messages, invoices, text files, audio files, video files, and a lot more.

Functions like opening emails, downloading and reading attachments, filling forms, copying/pasting documents, extracting data from social media channels or other forums, reading/writing databases, and collecting and recording data, can be carried out with the help of intelligent document processing. Organizations can effortlessly search, extract, and analyze data for decision-making.

As the future of work is exploring ways to support the human workforce to perform at their highest potential while creating a happy working environment, the digital workforce can benefit the process in numerous ways.

Contrary to the popular myth that robots will replace human roles, the technologies will complement human efforts by adding quality, efficiency, and job satisfaction to perform better in the new digital workplace. Further, technology will enable businesses to overcome human limitations to maximize human potential nurturing a supportive working environment with more inclusive work culture.

Patrice Williams is the Business Development Representative at Vuram, a hyperautomation services company. Vuram has received several prominent recognitions, including the Inc 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies in the United States, HFS hot vendor in 2020, and Rising Star- Product Challenger in Australia by ISG in ISG Provider Lens 2021 report. Williams has more than 20 years of experience as an operational manager and working in a multinational working environment, and has led Vuram’s hiring activities and people management. 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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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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