The Smart Path to Broadband Mapping

I often address the serious need for a broadband mapping strategy that doesn’t involve Connected Nation. Today I lay out one strategy for getting better maps faster, and for a much more reasonable cost than the alternative. 

Here’s why mapping is critical to underserved communities’ ability to get broadband, and why poor mapping threatens to derail broadband’s promised benefits and waste hundreds of millions of dollars. If you know this already, you can skip to the next section.

A non-techie’s guide to understanding mapping’s importance 

Broadband maps are graphic manifestations of THE most important element in broadband deployment – the needs analysis. The more accurately you determine which individuals, businesses and other organization need broadband, where they need it and what type broadband they need, the more likely it is you spend money wisely and deliver the best possible solution to communities.

Web maps represent the data that your needs analysis gathers. They’re database apps. Like any database, they are vulnerable to the truism “garbage in, garbage out.” Do flawed data collection (e.g. allow incumbents to hide critical data behind NDAs), you get flawed maps. Conversely, do a bang-up job of data collection, your maps rock. What’s equally true is that, if you use bad mapping technology, you get fairly useless maps. 

Bottom line: You’re working long hours and spending tons of money developing proposals for tens of millions of dollars. All of these actual and potential dollars could be lost if maps that suck due to no fault of your own lead to your proposal’s rejection. Those relying on good maps have the odds stacked in your favor.

From the Fed’s side, they’re giving away $4 billion with “fund, no-fund” decisions based heavily on broadband maps. The ratio of good to sucky maps will determine how well this $4 bil gets spent – or not. 

Those of you whose states have not signed a deal with a purveyor of bad maps (or didn’t do a bad job on their own) have a fighting chance to get maps done right. This is important even if you can’t get the ideal mapping data before the Aug 14 deadline for first-round stimulus funding. You may need to defend your proposal from incumbent of NTIA/RUS challenges, and the more data you have on hand, the stronger your defense.

Key components for useful maps  

Drew Clark, president of Broadband Census (a broadband news and mapping services company) believes any broadband map that’s worth its pixels and the price tag has to sufficiently represent SPARC data – Speeds, Prices, Availability, Reliability and Competition.

Speed data is not only how fast is the access, but what technology is delivering those speeds (WiFi, WiMAX, T1, DSL, etc). Besides advertised speeds (a joke in many cases), what are people actually getting at off-peak AND peak community usage times?

Pricing should include who doesn’t use broadband because the price is too high, or too high relative to actual speed delivered. Availability relates to determining down to every individual household or office where people can or can’t get access, but also is all of this data easily available to everyone in the community.

Reliability speaks to the ability for everyone within a coverage area to be able to get and stay online during emergencies, during peak usage or when trees get their leaves back. Intermittent access or frequently dropped connections is not reliable access. What’s more, reliability relates to whether or not the data is updated as changes occur and do those maps change in real time. 

Competition speaks for itself.

What’s the difference between a map that wastes your money and produces near-useless results, and a good map with the right amount of SPARC? Go to this article and scroll down a little bit to see the Connected Nation map for Summit County, OH. It’s devoid of value because it represent so little useful information. The pink represents any kind of coverage from dial up to fiber, none of it verified by an independent source.

The state of Ohio paid $7 million for maps that look like what you see here. Right below this is another map. For a fraction of that cost, Ohio could have received maps that resemble this one created by Strategic Networks Group.

Getting it done – one tactical approach 

This is a simple approach because, well, so often the best solutions are simple ones.

You want to start with a good map of census blocks for your area.  This tool from the Feds should help – http://mappingtool.broadbandusa.gov/DefaultARRA.aspx

Gather data from and about carriers in your proposed service area, keeping in mind you want as much SPARC information as you can pull. This is tedious since the largest carriers such as AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner want to give you as little as possible, while the smaller ones are hard pressed to put enough people and time to the task. 

Center for Communications Management Information (CCMI) collects data on nearly 650 carriers from the giants to local telecom companies via their tariff filings. Starting at $250, you can get a list of the carriers, their middle mile pricing, last mile pricing, listing of individual and business subscriber service packages, carriers’ advertised speeds. Final price depends on how much work they have to do to get what you want. You still have to track down wireless and cable providers, but you save a lot of time and aggravation getting the other data.

You can attempt to bribe or browbeat wireless and fiber providers not included in CCMI’s list for this information, plus try to get more granular data. This takes a lot of time, but you’ll likely find the smaller carriers to be much more cooperative than the big one. The latest clarifications from NTIA are supposed to make it easier to get carrier data. 

This next step compensates for all the data you won’t get from carriers. Conduct surveys of your individual and business constituents. Your objective is simple: find out who doesn’t have broadband, or enough broadband to meet their needs.

Contact a reputable mailing list company with a good track record for providing reliable data, spend several hundred dollars to get a list of addresses and phone numbers for all the residents and businesses in your proposed service area, and survey them. Ask a couple of questions about what services they’re getting, but mainly find out 1) who’s getting intermittent or no service, 2) is the speed that people are getting adequate, 3) is it affordable. For people not getting access, is it the lack of availability, affordability and/or relevance holding them back?  

Put people in the streets, on telephones, online. Snail mail surveys, print them in newspapers, insert them in shopping bags. Either through volunteer broadband activists, paid teenagers, government and service provider staff or all of the above. This data doesn’t have to take months, it can be a couple of weeks if you coordinate a full-court press.

Show who’s dBoss

What makes this tactic practical is a service such as that from RidgeviewTel. Your workforce distributing and gathering surveys or your constituents can, either directly online or by phone, enter this data into the company’s software called dBoss. Ridgeview’s dBoss then immediately records, aggregates and displays this data on a Web-based map that’ viewable within seconds. You can see the entire state or zoom down to someone’s doorstep.

You can layer on top of the CCMI and survey data any additional information on communication assets such as location of dark fiber, vertical assets, WiFi access points, Internet cafes and just about anything else related to broadband. Changes are propagated in real time. The University of Calif., Chico’s Center for Economic Development is doing a major mapping project in N. Calif., and they’re using a similar data-gathering method with in-house software, so this approach has merit. 

When you strip away all the government-speak, the PR hype, the geekazoid terminology, what a process like this gets you is a reasonably straightforward, accurate maps showing where people need broadband. Yes, it is labor intensive in some parts. But for a community of 10,000, you may be looking at $6,000 or $7,000 for get the technology components doing what they need to do, and whatever it costs you to mobilize an army of data collectors.

What you get in the end are maps that truly represent an effective needs analysis exercise, and this data is quickly updated as broadband coverage and broadband need evolves. You get way more useful data to make much better broadband decisions, and spend way less than the millions states have been soaked for to produce marginally useful maps.

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5 Responses

  1. [...] See the original post: The Smart Path to Broadband Mapping [...]

  2. [...] here, you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed for updates on this topic.Powered by WP Greet BoxCraig Settles says broadband mapping is one of the keys to success in bringing the best broadband options into [...]

  3. Nice Piece Criag very informative, mapping is a critical component pre design phase of the buildout.

  4. [...] mapping. Many people feel that the firm that has garnered most of the attention, Connected Nation, is too close to the big telephone companies. The danger, critics say, is that maps that overestimate the broadband capabilities of a particular [...]

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