A Debate About Data Confidentiality and the Forthcoming 'Broadband Census for America'

WASHINGTON, August 8 – Data about the names of broadband carriers and the locations in which they offer services, by ZIP code, is not confidential information. Data about the number of subscribers that carriers have in a particular ZIP code may well be confidential.

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A recent post to Dave Farber’s [IP] list:

WASHINGTON, August 8 – I’d like to take a moment to respond to some of the issues raised by the recent e-mail of Brett Glass.

With respect to the issue data confidentiality, it’s important to separate out several issues here:

(1) The names of carriers and the locations in which they offer services, by ZIP code.

(2) The number of subscribers that carriers have in a particular ZIP code.

The Form 477 of the Federal Communications Commission requires carriers to submit both types of information to the FCC.

I agree that category (2) may well be confidential information. I do not think that category (1) can be considered confidential.

The web site that I run, http://BroadbandCensus.com, is an attempt to combine information about broadband from various sources. In addition to “crowdsourcing” data from internet users, we are combining public information from the FCC’s Form 477, publicly available information about carriers and where they offer services, as well as from states and localities. Since we launched BroadbandCensus.com in January 2008, We have had thousands of internet users tell us the names of their providers, where those providers are offering service, and they’ve taken our beta speed test.

It is important to note that Form 477 data released by the FCC does not include the names of the carriers. The FCC recently ordered carriers to begin to provide information on the census tract level (a unit slightly smaller than a ZIP code). However, unless the FCC changes its policy, consumers will still not be able to obtain carrier information from the agency.

Hence, the data we have from the FCC is extremely limited.

Our data directly from carriers is a little bit better. Since the launch of BroadbandCensus.com, I have reached out to associations of small carriers, and dozens of them have voluntarily provided information about the ZIP codes in which they offer service. Several of the major cable companies also make this information publicly available, although other large providers do not.

Who would benefit more from public disclosure about the locations, technology types, promised speeds and prices: small carriers or big carriers? I don’t know.

Brett clearly feels that small carriers would suffer. I know of others who disagree with him.

With regard to the conference on September 26, 2008, that is being sponsored by BroadbandCensus.com, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Texas at Austin’s Robert S. Strauss Center, and the Virginia Tech eCorridors Program, we plan to make a list of our panel speakers available in the coming weeks. Although space on the program is tight, the program committee is open to including others.

The goal of the conference, as stated on http://broadbandcensus.com/blog/?p=331, is to “invite government officials, academic researchers and other key stakeholders to a half-day conference on collecting and sharing public data about high-speed internet access.”

With regard to issue of the Freedom of Information Act that Brett raises:

It is correct that an organization for which I previously worked — the Center for Public Integrity — filed a lawsuit seeking the disclosure of the Form 477 database. As the suit proceeded, the Center dropped its request for data in category (2), and instead sought the data in category (1).

More information about the Center’s lawsuit is available at http://projects.publicintegrity.org/telecom/report.aspx?aid=886

All of the major telecommunications carriers’ associations intervened or filed amicus briefs on behalf of the FCC in this matter. Judge Ellen Huvelle ruled against the Center in August 2007, and again in October 2007.

Meanwhile, the momentum behind collecting and mapping better broadband data continues unabated. Indeed, the FCC is undergoing a proceeding on this very question. I blogged about this at http://broadbandcensus.com/blog/?p=195, and BroadbandCensus.com filed comments in the FCC’s regulatory proceeding, at http://broadbandcensus.com/blog/?p=119

The gist of the comments is that the FCC should change its policy and publicly disclose the data in category (1). BroadbandCensus.com has not filed any FOIA requests or lawsuits on this matter.

If you want to get involved with BroadbandCensus.com, or with the “Broadband Census for America” Conference, please feel free to e-mail me at drew@broadbandcensus.com.

We want to make this discussion and debate as open and transparent as possible.

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