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BroadbandCensus.com: Starting the Ball Rolling on Crowdsourcing

WASHINGTON, September 22, 2009 – Public and transparent broadband data has now been elevated to the level of a fundamental principle, at least in the Monday speech by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski. But it’s worth reflecting on the time – not so long ago – when the quest to collect this kind of broadband data was an unrealized vision at the losing end of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

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WASHINGTON, September 22, 2009 – Public and transparent broadband data has now been elevated to the level of a fundamental principle, at least in the Monday speech by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski.

But it’s worth reflecting on the time – not so long ago – when the quest to collect this kind of broadband data was an unrealized vision at the losing end of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

On Monday, I recounted the history and aftermath of this FOIA request and lawsuit that the Center for Public Integrity filed against Kevin Martin’s FCC. In many ways, that defeat directly set the stage for the launch of BroadbandCensus.com in the fall of 2007.

All this week, during One Web Week, I’m speaking about the history of BroadbandCensus.com 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.

BroadbandCensus.com is Born: An Attempt to Go Around the Incumbents

With the loss of the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit – which attempted to obtain carrier-level data about the broadband availability that the FCC holds in its Form 477 database – round one in the battle over broadband data went to the incumbents.

For round two, we decided to go after the broadband data using self-reported broadband data on a web site with a catchy name, like BroadbandCensus.com. In essence, BroadbandCensus.com is an effort to marry the data about the quality of broadband connections that only consumers have, with publicly discoverable data about the state of broadband connections on a geographic area.

All of this began to come together in late September 2007 – at the annual Telecommunications Policy Research Conference at George Mason University School of Law – and in early October of 2007 at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. In a blog post at the time, I wrote:

Last week was a whirlwind of activity for the telecommunications, media and technology project with which I had been engaged since August 2006.The folks at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard were kind enough to invite me to speak in their luncheon series on Tuesday, October 9. I discussed “Media Tracker, FCC Watch, and the Politics of Telecom, Media and Technology.” I’m happy to report that the event is now archived on Media Berkman as a webcast.

David Weinberger (blog: Joho the Blog) was particularly interested in broadband tracking, and how more detailed information about how to obtain information about the availability of broadband services. (See David’s post.) One of the key efforts of the project, under my direction, was the quest to obtain information from the FCC about the names of the companies that provide broadband service in each particular ZIP code. We filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington to obtain the information, under the Freedom of Information Act. The FCC denied our request. Right now the matter is pending before Judge Ellen Huvelle.

Say Doc Searls and John Palfrey, “Drew’s work links in obvious fashion toLawrence Lessig’s next 10 years of work on corruption.”

As I noted in the post, all of this made the Center for Public Integrity’s decision to scale back its “Well Connected” telecommunications and media ownership project particularly untimely. My last day at the Center was on Friday, October 12, 2007.

The active work on BroadbandCensus.com began on October 15, 2007. Together with Andrew MacRae, who had worked with me at the Center for Public Integrity – and now serves as Chief Operating Officer at BroadbandCensus.com – we began to sketch out the model for “crowdsourcing” broadband data collection efforts. On the business side, after an initial period of outreach, Broadband Census LLC was organized as a Limited Liability Company in the Commonwealth of Virginia on December 7, 2007.

BroadbandCensus.com Began Crowdsourcing Internet Data Collection Efforts

To get started, BroadbandCensus.com received some modest seed funding from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and from the Benton Foundation. We’ve also been blessed by wonderful collaborators of technical and outreach matters: Virginia Tech’s eCorridors Program (I’ll speak more about eCorridors later in the week), Internet2, the Network Policy Council of EDUCAUSE, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, and others.

Working with our web designers and data architects, we built the data-collection mechanism on BroadbandCensus.com, and launched the site live on January 31, 2008. Here are links to some of the early press we received from New Scientist and Telephony Online.

The questions in the “Take the Broadband Census” are basic: (1) Where are you taking the Census, (2) What is your ZIP code, (3) Which carrier do you use? (we require individuals to select from a drop-down menu, rather than a free form box, to ensure standardization), (4) What type of service?, (5) What are your promised speeds, (6) How do you rate the service? (on a scale of 1-5 stars), and (7) Comments?

Home users are required to pick select from among the carriers; office and university users are not. Everyone taking the Broadband Census is required to include their ZIP code, or their ZIP+4 code, and to rate the service quality of their connection.

Very soon after we launched the Take the Broadband Census page, we launched Step 2, the Beta Speed Test, in February 2008. We use the open-source NDT test, or the Network Diagnostic Tool, developed by Internet2. Virginia Tech’s eCorridors Program pioneered the use of NDT for public speed tests.

We do not host any NDT servers. Rather, we direct our internet traffic to eight computers around the country on which they may test their speeds. Using the programming language Java, the applet we deploy collects the results of the NDT test, copies them over to BroadbandCensus.com, and publicly displays the results of the upstream and downstream speeds on BroadbandCensus.com.

All of the content and data-sets on BroadbandCensus.com are published under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License, allowing state/local governments, and universities, to freely take and republish all of the data-sets, provided that they attribute them to BroadbandCensus.com.

The combination of the Broadband Census questionnaire with the NDT speed test allows important observations to be realized. Are users getting the speeds that they are promises? Is there a correlation between promised and delivered speeds, and the rankings that consumers give to their service quality? Which carriers are the fastest, and are they faster in some parts of the country than in others?

A further dimension of BroadbandCensus.com’s activities is to help consumers monitor how well broadband providers live up to their promised terms of service. See this article about Comcast’s Terms of Service for an early example of this.

I gave an interim report about the progress and use of BroadbandCensus.com in July 2008 at the Joint Techs Conference in Lincoln, Neb.

Spreading the Word About BroadbandCensus.com and the Broadband SPARC

Building sufficient momentum behind BroadbandCensus.com has always been our biggest challenge, particularly in the those early months of 2008. This, remember, was before the intense focus that the presidential campaign, and the broadband stimulus package, placed on a data-driven approach to broadband policy.

Our marketing has been built upon word-of-mouth efforts, cross-promotion by our partners, and through the speeches and articles that I’ve written about the need for public and transparent broadband data. Among these efforts were speeches at Freedom to Connect, Internet2, NATOA, the National Conference for Media Reform, the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet’s Politics Online conference, and in other venues.

One of the ways that BroadbandCensus.com has encapsulated our efforts, in a short-hand way, is through a simple acronym: Broadband SPARC. This stands for the Speeds, Prices, Availability, Reliability and Competition within a particular area.

We’ve pioneered this concept of collecting and aggregating broadband data from a variety of sources – from carriers that voluntarily provide data, from consumers and the speed tests they take, and from publicly available sources. SPARC is an effort to represent the panoply of broadband options, and not simply to focus on whether “broadband,” at any particular pre-defined speed, is available or not.

One Web Day 2008 marked a turning point in our outreach efforts.

We joined together with One Web Day to help promote a conference that we organized in September 2008 – the Broadband Census for America Conference – and to urge people to Take the Broadband Census. One Web Day was one of the non-profit sponsors of the Broadband Census for America Conference, which I’ll discuss in greater detail on Wednesday.

We urge you to also Get Involved in our efforts. You can:

•Take the Broadband Census and Speed Test

•Grab a Button for Your Blog

•Join one of BroadbandCensus.com’s Committees

About BroadbandCensus.com

BroadbandCensus.com was launched in January 2008, and uses “crowdsourcing” to collect the Broadband SPARC: Speeds, Prices, Availability, Reliability and Competition. The news on BroadbandCensus.com is produced by Broadband Census News LLC, a subsidiary of Broadband Census LLC that was created in July 2009.

A recent split of operations helps to clarify the mission of BroadbandCensus.com. Broadband Census Data LLC offers commercial broadband verification services to cities, states, carriers and broadband users. Created in July 2009, Broadband Census Data LLC produced a joint application in the NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program with Virginia Tech’s eCorridors Program. In August 2009, BroadbandCensus.com released a beta map of Columbia, South Carolina, in partnership with Benedict-Allen Community Development Corporation.

Broadband Census News LLC offers daily and weekly reporting, as well as the Broadband Breakfast Club. The Broadband Breakfast Club has been inviting top experts and policy-makers to share breakfast and perspectives on broadband technology and internet policy since October 2008. Both Broadband Census News LLC and Broadband Census Data LLC are subsidiaries of Broadband Census LLC, and are organized in the Commonwealth of Virginia. About BroadbandCensus.com.

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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