Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why Spend $350 Million to Map Broadband?

Original Aricle - New York Times

Deep inside the stimulus bill that passed the Senate Tuesday is an allocation of up to $350 million for making a “nationwide inventory map of existing broadband service capability and availability in the United States.” This map, members of Congress say, will be helpful in making sure that the $7 billion in proposed grants to bring high speed Internet service to rural areas are handed out where they are most needed.

On first glance, that seems like a lot of money to find out who can get broadband and who can’t. After all, can’t pretty much any Internet provider tell you over the phone or on its Web site whether it offers service?

Of course it can. But that doesn’t mean it will give the same information to the government. And some advocacy groups are arguing that the stimulus bill needs a provision that will force cable and phone companies to disclose more data in order to make this broadband map more accurate and cheaper to produce.

To be fair, several states have tried to create maps of Internet service and found it to be a technical challenge.

“There is no single standard for information, and it takes considerable effort to get to the point where the data makes sense,” said Brian Mefford, the chief executive of Connected Nation, a nonprofit group that got its start helping the state of Kentucky develop a map of where high speed Internet service was available. In some cases, the information from Internet providers was so poor, Mr. Mefford said, that the group had to send people out in trucks to see firsthand where service is available.

Mr. Mefford notes that not all of the $350 million will go to the maps themselves. Some of it will also finance local groups that will find ways to educate and encourage people to get broadband service. Some states, for example, have found ways to subsidize low-income parents of school-age children to buy computers.

Now to the politics: In many states that have surveyed broadband use, the cable and phone companies declined to provide some of the information that was requested. And in most cases, when the companies did provide data, they demanded it be kept confidential. That meant that while the broadband maps accurately identified areas that lacked fast Internet service, they typically couldn’t be used by anyone who wanted to tell what services were available at what speeds and prices. (For example, here is a site with maps of Minnesota created by Broadband Nation. Here is a site for a similar effort in California, in which the state government pressed for additional information, like specific prices.)

Mr. Mefford says Connected Nation is comfortable working with these restrictions, but others who have worked trying to expand broadband use have railed against them.

“We ask carriers on a specific location basis what services they are providing,” said Drew Clark, the founder of Broadband Census, a Web site that is trying to build its own database of what Internet service is offered where. “They argue with a straight face that it is proprietary information where they offer service, even though every consumer who has broadband service knows who they get it from and where they live,” Mr. Clark said.

Indeed, Congress wrestled with this issue last year when it passed a bill calling for a government broadband map. (That bill didn’t allocate any money for the project, however, which is why the $350 million is tucked into the stimulus bill.) The House version of the bill last year called for the collection and disclosure of detailed information about what services are available in what places, but that provision was removed in the Senate, reportedly at the request of telecom companies.

The Internet providers say they are afraid that if they published a map of the services they offered, competitors would know exactly what pitch to send to which customers. Yes, those rivals have other ways to find out where they do business, but none are as easy as downloading a complete list.

Why not publish information that will let companies offer Americans better deals on Internet service than the ones they have now? And for that matter, if the government has a reason to collect a list of all the services available, why shouldn’t it let consumers look up that information to help them shop around?

Now, however, there seems to be a bigger issue than the trade-offs between the rights of consumers to get better deals and the rights of businesses to keep their operations secret. The federal government is about to spend a great deal of money to subsidize broadband construction and a good deal more to make a map of where that money should go. Congress, as well as the regulators who will carry out the new law, should look carefully to see if the reluctance of the cable and phone companies to provide customer data will slow down these efforts or make them more expensive.

Mr. Clark argues it does.

“If the federal government is about to spend up to $9 billion on broadband,” he said, “it needs to know with a high degree of specificity who is providing broadband now, what technologies are being employed and at what speeds.”

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