I listened to NTIA’s press briefing on the national broadband map (NBM) and when it was over, I posed the question on Twitter: What do we have?
We have 1) An expensive map, though mercifully under budget. 2) A data intensive map (I’m seriously awed by the breadth of it). 3) A nice tool for creating all kinds of reports that will have varying levels of value. 4) Ample signs that people worked hard on this, delivered on time and deserve a vacation.
I should state that I haven’t looked at the actual map except to try to find details on where I live, and to look at the rankings of states based on the percentage of populations that have 1 gigabit service. Slow speeds and browser freeze kinda dampers things.
Anywho, the real question everyone should be asking is, what do we have relative to the main mission of this mapping exercise? Is this end product worth $200 million in the overall scheme of improving broadband in America through better policy and financial decision making?
It’s a shame that the map’s potential value is severely crippled by something over which the staff had little control: incumbents’ refusal to provide the one element of data that is key to the main reason for having the map – actual versus advertise speeds.
By and large, this map will always be incomplete. The two pieces of data needed by Federal, state and local governments to create useful broadband policy and to spend money effectively for broadband projects are actual speeds, plus a true picture of the competitive landscape within any given area. I still have to dig a little to find out if anything in the map supports analyzing the presence of or lack of competition.
In several respects NTIA’s hands have been tied from the outset through no fault of theirs. They’ve needed some sort of leverage to pry accurate data from incumbents (no one in power in DC has the political will for that), or a technology tool capable of grabbing data to validate speeds across the map. I wrote about (and partnered with) one such vendor, but unfortunately the product got to the table a little late for the party in most states.
The FCC has 10,000 devices in homes across the US collecting in real time actual speeds people are getting, and plan to use this as a validation tool of sorts. I don’t believe you can take these 10,000 sample homes and extrapolate this data to over 100 million households with the level of accuracy required to make the kinds of billion-dollar broadband decisions facing us. There are too many variables involved. Quality of service coming from the same provider can vary across the country. Topographies differ. Seemingly minor things such as the differences between locations in what kinds of buildings and even types of building materials used can vary in impact on broadband access and performance.
NTIA says they’re relying on consumers to take speed tests and give input data on actual network speeds and performance. However, updating the map by way of Crowdsourcing data through consumers’ tests and adding comments to the base is slow and similarly incomplete. Also, if a community doesn’t have a broadband connection, crowdsourcing data from them will be a little difficult.
If there isn’t a mechanism or data in the map’s database that enables people to analyze the competitive picture, this also limits the value of the map as a broadband decision-making tool. One of my colleagues, self-described policy wonk Rahul Gaitonde tweeted, “I agree. They should have included a feature that would say something like ‘at the 3 Mbps level there are four providers.'”
I’m sorry I didn’t ask in the briefing how they evened out/reconciled the states’ data. With data coming in from 50 sources representing, what, at least 50 different data gathering processes, what does this say about overall map quality? In N. Carolina, for example, eNC (the group doing their mapping), is using four pretty sophisticated systems for gathering and also validating data independent of whatever incumbents provide. Other states may not be nearly as sophisticated, and we won’t event talk about the 15 or so states that have Connected Nation doing their mapping.
I expected price information wouldn’t be included, and I understand why. Having recently completed a needs assessment for a city, I was reminded how insanely difficult it is to capture this data. Even if providers were jumping off a cliff to give you everything they have, providers change pricing more than Lady Gaga changes wardrobes. And pricing can change at the local level depending on who’s offering what to which prospect.
That said, not having this data is something of a problem. If you’re trying to execute broadband adoption strategies and you believe that a barrier to adoption is price, how do you create appropriate tactics when you have no real handle on who’s being charged what?
Ok, that’s it for now. Time Warner, and other incumbents are effin’ with North and South Carolina big time and I need to throw some support to that battle. In the meantime, check out the Broadband Map (http://www.broadbandmap.gov/) and tell me what you think.