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How Broadband Mapping in the United States Works

Broadband mapping in the United States are efforts to describe geographically how Internet access service from telephone and cable TV companies (commonly called "broadband") is available in terms of available speed and price. Mapping has been done on the national as well as the state level. The efforts are seen as preliminary steps towards broadband universal service.

Background

Internet access and bit rates (often called "speeds") vary considerably across the US. Generally, rural Internet users have fewer options and slower service. American consumers often spend more money for slower service than in other countries.

Former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Rachelle Chong floated the idea of broadband mapping while working for the Bush administration. In 2008, the FCC approved a broadband mapping plan which would examine availability by speed and "provide a more granular look at where broadband is available," according to a report in the Washington Post. The Broadband Data Improvement Act was introduced by Senator Daniel Inouye in 2007 and became law on October 10, 2008. The act's section 106 created a legal framework for the United States Department of Commerce's State Broadband Data and Development Grant Program, but did not fund it.

The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) was funded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (known as the "stimulus package") under the Obama administration. Funds were allocated by the Commerce department and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in February 2009. The NTIA was to create and release a National Broadband Inventory Map by February 17, 2011. Initially an estimated 350 million dollars would be spent on the map. The $350 million figure was reduced over time to about $293 million. The mapping project was part of a much larger project perhaps involving seven billion dollars for a National Broadband Plan that had, among other goals, bringing high speed Internet service to rural areas. State governments such as New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Minnesota attempted broadband maps, as did nations in Africa.

In Massachusetts, an ARRA grant was supplemented with state funds in 2010 for the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. In service of the MassBroadband 123 project to provide universal access statewide, the Institute created the Massachusetts Broadband Map, as of 2011 updated every six months.

Lack of mapping standards

As with other thematic maps, there is no standard for mapping information. Rather, different studies have been done using different geographic and data rate parameters. Geometric units such as census tracts as well as zip codes have been used. Although the term broadband once had a technical meaning, it is used in marketing and policy to generally apply to relatively high data rate (and thus more expensive) Internet access, while technology changes over time. One 2007 estimate used five speed ranges, with the lowest being from 200 kbit/s to 768 kbit/s, and the highest was more than 6 Mbit/s.

Politics and controversy

Politics influences the allocation of funds. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration in 2009 said it would reassess the program to ensure the funds are used in a "fiscally prudent" manner, after private firms claimed they could make the map for much less. In addition, there is an effort by the FCC to do a separate mapping effort unconnected to the congressional effort.

Internet providers, including telephone and cable firms, according to a report in The New York Times, are reluctant to disclose to government whether it offers service to some regions, how much it costs, and other parameters of availability. Lobbying firms and nonprofits geared up to battle for funding since there could be lucrative government contracts in the future.

Connected Nation is a non-profit group which was involved in an effort to get the state of Kentucky mapped regarding its available Internet service. It is funded by AT&T, Verizon, and other telecom firms. Art Brodsky, Communications Director at Public Knowledge, a public interest organization which focuses on telecoms, wrote several articles in the Huffington Post criticizing the efforts of Connected Nation which, in his view, represented the interests of the telephone and cable industries and not the interests of consumers or other Internet-using publics. According to Brodsky, the nonprofit has board members who work for leading telecom and cable firms, and the nonprofit is heading efforts to keep the broadband map information "confidential" by deeming it "proprietary". Brodsky used the term broadband bullies to describe telephone and cable efforts to impede the mapping project.

Behavioral economics expert Sara Wedeman who has studied broadband mapping methodologies criticized the politics behind the mapping efforts and suggested that efforts by cable and telephone companies could undermine choices for consumers. Wedeman lauded the methodologies by states such as North Carolina and Massachusetts and noted that when studies were done properly, the reports found that broadband speed and availability were below those reported by similar efforts by affiliates of Connected Nations.

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