Going for Google Broadband Gold (one NC community’s approach)

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Google recently turned the broadband world on its ear by announcing it’s going to set up fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks for a handful of lucky communities that will deliver 1 gigabit per second speeds. Dozens of cities large and small are lining up to apply.

I wanted to get a perspective on what’s motivating communities that survived NOFA 1 to endure a different frenzied race for broadband gold. Hunter Goosmann, General Manager of ERC Broadband in Western North Carolina, recently received their Opportunity to Re-Apply letter from NTIA and RUS. ERC’s not only going for Google gold, but also a chance at Round 2 funding (sleep must not be a valued commodity in that part of the world).

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NOFA 2 – It Does Matter How You Say It

I listened to the NTIA/RUS workshop in Denver as these folks spelled out what makes for a good grant application, interpreted rules, etc. My ears perked up when they started on why projects got rejected. Specifically, when they explained that, for apps to get graded well in the Purpose (of the proposed network) category, “you have to be compelling, credible and clear.”

There have been some bitter and justifiable commentary about the first funding round, it’s lack of transparency in key areas and the lack of feedback throughout the process. I’ll add my 2 cents on this, but since the agencies gave some specific feedback, albeit in a general audience rather than to specific applicants, I want to jump on the key lessons.  

Months ago I wrote a column on how vital it is for you to write a really outstanding mission statement and executive summary. I believe readers thought I was loony giving them writing tips while they were trying to sort out engineering issues, 122-pages of hell and other seemingly more important issues.

Listen up folks! This is important. Today’s workshop spent significant time relating how reviewers rejected apps right off the bat – before due diligence – because of what was said, not said or how it was said. I point you later to a document with advice you probably want to heed. But first, a summary from the people who hold you future in their hands about what can kill your good, even great, idea for a network.

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Mo’ Money, Mo’ Money, Mo’ Money

Morning folks.

NTIA just announced another batch of lucky broadband stimulus winners. Check it out!

I’ll have analysis at midnight. My new book should be available for order this Friday. My publisher and I are frantically trying to get this into your hands to help with your broadband planning and grant application.

Stay tuned.

Handicapping NOFA 2

The good news is that the new NOFA rules are out. The bad news, if you have Attention Deficit Disorder, is that there are two of them and each one seems as long as the first NOFA rules. But at least there are welcome changes. Here’s an overview and a look at who does well as a result of these. 

First, I think it’s wise to let each group have its own rules. Many of the frustration people have had with the NOFA, Round 1 stem from the rules being a quick blending of procedures from agencies with two different purposes and ways of doing business. That led to the rules contradicting each other in places, or otherwise breeding confusion.

In terms of focus, NTIA is addressing middle mile primarily and this makes sense because it gives NTIA a bigger bang for their buck, allowing them to bring broadband to large geographical areas through each award. Rather than spend time reviewing 30 proposals for $1 million each, better to review one proposal for $30 million. There’s less administrative hassle on the backend where NTIA has to manage each funded project to completion.

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Taking Action on the New NOFA Rules

Welcome to NOFA 2 and the 60-day march through hell (for some) to $4 billion. After Friday afternoon’s sudden delivery of the preliminary set of NOFA rules, I made the comment that it is good that the agencies are going their separate ways. Trying to keep the NTIA/RUS marriage together for the sake of the kids didn’t make sense

Then I looked at draft of the NOFA for NTIA and RUS. That’s nearly 200 pages! My brain glazed over. No wonder they waited until Friday before a 3-day weekend! Then at midnight, I got an e-mail from the New America Foundation with incredibly thorough summaries of NOFA 2 highlighting changes from NOFA 1 and other valuable details condensed into 85% fewer pages. Read the summaries before the actual NOFAs.

Heartfelt thanks to New America are very much in order from all of us trying to slog through all this info. Dudes and dudettes – thank you!!

For my part, since New America breaks down what NOFA 2 is all about, I’m giving you some tips on what to do about these rules so you can get a good proposal across the finish line. There’s barely two months to the March 15 deadline for your proposal, so I’m not prettying this post up. This train’s leaving the station. You can complain to the Fed’s conductors later about whatever injustices you spot.  

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NTIA Awards First Four Grants for Broadband Mapping

I was almost too giddy to speak. The first four stimulus grant awards for broadband mapping were announced yesterday for the states of California, Indiana, N. Carolina and Vermont. If a majority of the remaining states that receive grants employ similar mapping procedures of these four, NTIA and taxpayers stand to get plenty of bang for their stimulus buck.   

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) gets approximately $1.8 million to collect and verify the availability, speed, and location of broadband across the state, plus $500,000 for the cost of statewide broadband planning activities over four years. The Indiana Office of Technology (IOT) receives approximately $1.3 million.

In N. Carolina the Rural Economic Development Center, Inc. (e-NC Authority) is awarded approximately $1.6 million plus about $435,000 for the cost for broadband planning activities in that state over five years. The Vermont Center for Geographic Information (VCGI) is awarded approximately $1.2 million.

This is a victory of sound mapping processes over the straightjacket of the  conventional wisdom regarding mapping that makes broadband advocates ill. These four awardees were selected because their proposals met or exceeded program requirements in three key areas: data collection, verification and collaboration. In a minute I’ll show how this leads to greater ROI for broadband investments.

The conventional wisdom, driven in large part by incumbent telcos and cable companies, is that you can’t get good broadband mapping data unless service providers (incumbents) give it to you. And because incumbents don’t want to give you the data you need, this mapping process has to be tedious, expensive and nearly void of independent verification. Indeed, when some critics said $50 million is adequate, $350 million was set aside for states to do mapping because of the expense of prying the data loose.   

For seven months, community broadband supporters watched with increasing trepidation as the embodiment of this flawed conventional wisdom, Connected Nation, secured deals to pursue mapping on behalf of states such as Texas, Florida and Minnesota. NTIA’s announcement today indicates that the agency is going to, as much as is possible, fund states that do mapping right.

 Why these award winners matter to community broadband 

I believe that, by selecting these particular four states for initial awards, NTIA establishes the benchmark by which future applications will be reviewed and grants awarded. Other states can view these winning procedures to modify their own proposals. And I believe NTIA will actually push back on those applications that follow the conventional wisdom, again, using the first awardees as the models for what should be.

California and N. Carolina have been at this game longer than most states (I assume the same for Indiana and Vermont as I learn more about them). Early on they rejected the notion of relying solely on service providers and have been collecting data from other sources, including directly from constituents through telephoning and in-the-field surveys. You cannot collect more accurate data than when you go straight to the people who do or don’t have broadband. N. Carolina plans to use Web and GIS tools to collect additional extensive data in a process they expect to be effective and surprisingly inexpensive.

Verification is critical to a superior mapping strategy and subsequent broadband deployment. The lack of independent verification leads to situations such as you have in West Virginia. Connect West Virginia (Connected Nation) produced a map showing 90%, 95% broadband penetration while the state ranks nearly last among U.S. states for broadband adoption. NTIA’s awardees will use multiple methods and independent verifiers to conduct data verification work. 

Collaboration is the third important ingredient for mapping success. The four awardees are pulling together state and local partners to execute the mapping exercise with maximum efficiency and minimizing some of the process implementation costs. Unlike the incumbents that shroud all of their data in non-disclosure agreements, these collaborative efforts create for the public a true, comprehensive picture of broadband availability.

When states use what e-NC Authority’s Ex. Dir. Jane Smith Patterson refers to as a multi-modal broadband data collection, you get better-detailed, accurate maps. This in turn enables you to make decisions that lead to (hopefully) the most appropriate broadband technologies going into appropriate communities in a way that yields the best results for your broadband investment. 

Ultimately, these state maps will be woven into a national broadband map that should be the cornerstone for the FCC’s national broadband strategy. I don’t expect that all state maps will be perfect, though I may bet you beer that my state’s map (CA) will be better than your state map. I’m sure some mapping awards will make me want to wretch. But I do have greater confidence in getting a decent number of high-quality maps than I did a couple of months ago. 

 Shout out

I have to send a special shout out to e-NC Authority. Here is a state agency that in July of this year was sold down the river in favor of Connected Nation by some of its own state legislators (at the behest of AT&T). You can read the ugly details here. Luckily for the good guys and gals, the state’s governor wasn’t swayed. She gave the nod to e-NC to represent and go after the NTIA grant.

I talked to Ms. Jane on the phone soon after I heard the news about the award and my office lit up from her smile. She and her team’s worked hard since 2001 developing good broadband maps. They had to fight naysayers, AT&T obstruction, serious budget cuts and treacherous political hacks (but I repeat myself), yet they came out on top. Karma rocks! e-NC won’t be gloating, though. They’re already working towards making their stimulus fueled project a model for the nation, then having NTIA and RUS come on down for some southern hospitality and technology showcasing.

I’ll be writing more about these states and their respective efforts in a week or so. Stay tuned.

A Little Self-Promotion Always Helps

If you’re planning to build a community broadband network, call me (510-536-4522) or e-mail. I have a ton of knowledge that can help you create a great plan, write a great NOFA app and implement your plan.

“Incumbents Do Not Have a Veto!”

With those words, Asst. Sec Lawrence Strickling, head of NTIA, enables many applicants and others worried about the NOFA’s incumbent challenge clause breathe a little easier. And for those of us who’ve railed against this potentially destructive clause , there is also a bit of satisfaction for not giving up the fight.

Mr. Strickling and Jonathan Adelstein, Administrator for RUS, were responding to questions from the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology & the Internet when Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (CA) pushed for answers about the clause. “I want to make sure there’s competition. If the incumbents can just knock out people because they don’t want any to come in, I don’t really think that’s the way for us to go.” (gotta love our Calif Congressional delegation)

Mr. Strickling gave a reassuring response from both gentlemen and a clearer picture of how this process will run.

Applications with infrastructure proposals have proposed to cover areas where there isn’t broadband coverage. Maps are being generated for these areas through a publicly accessible database so you can see the proposed coverage area. During the review period anyone, including incumbents, can submit a message on the site saying they agree or not that the areas currently are not receiving adequate broadband.

Because applicants had to provide detailed information to justify their claim that these areas need broadband, “incumbents have to provide a lot of information to overcome the presumptions that have been established by the applicants.” NTIA will evaluate the challenge if it feels the challenge and supporting material throws the proposal into dispute, but NTIA and not the incumbent will have final say in determining whether the app moves to final review.

Mr. Adelstein added, “We will demand real substantiation with any challenge. But also, we want to be sure that what applicants present is accurate. Claims have to be verified and substantiated.” Furthermore, RUS has over 400 offices across the U.S. and they will send people into the field to areas that incumbents challenge to test and assess the validity of any challenges.

Where does that leave us?

This isn’t a final knockout blow to the clause. Yet there is cause for some joy here.

First, NTIA/RUS is giving applicants the high ground and the presumption that you hold an unassailable position. The burden of proof to the contrary lies with the incumbent. If you’ve done your homework, and are continually gathering whatever data you can to reinforce the fact that people in your proposed coverage area don’t have adequate broadband, you can better fight off any challenge.

Second, political pressure matters here. When members of Congress such as Rep Eshoo say to NTIA/RUS they’re not going to be happy if they see proposals in their districts knocked out by incumbent challenges, you better believe this becomes a factor. Same holds true if governors start making phone calls. The Congressional and gubernatorial cards are in play.

Third, this challenge process will play out in a fishbowl. If, for example, incumbents are required to submit details on actual speeds delivered to make their case, there’ll probably be few challenges. Incumbents don’t want it proven in such a public fashion just how big the gap is between what’s advertised and what’s delivered. Can you imagine the kind of fallout that would generate?

Fourth, you can run a preemptive counter-challenge in thi fishbowl. Anyone can post a challenge on the Web site. But that means anyone can post a note saying “I live here and let me tell you how bad coverage really is.”

So what you do is round up a whole passel of people around computer in the libraries, community centers, the schools, and get their comments. Be sure they submit enough of the right information, such as address, who the incumbent is, etc. so their comments carry weight.

What can we expect?

In the end, everything comes down to how detail-y is NTIA/RUS’ definition of “substantiation.” I think any mid-sized incumbent will be hard pressed to respond if they have to do a lot of legwork in a short period of time (2 or 3 weeks) because they don’t have a lot of staff.

For the bigger ones, such as Verizon and AT&T, a lot depends on the specific requirements for making a challenge. Remember, these folks didn’t apply in the first place because they don’t want to open their kimonos for public inspection.

Another factor is whether or not the applicant can rebut the challenge. With the amount of work a lot of applicants have presented to make their case for an area not being served, incumbents have to realize they’re at a disadvantage. I think incumbents would fear the publicity of losing a public counter challenge, so in this case there would be few challenges.

On the flip side, if these public statements from NTIA about requiring lots of substantial are mostly posturing, and the eventual required data to make a challenge is minimal (i.e. presenting only advertised speeds), then all bets are off. Skimpy requirements will likely lead to lots of challenges. I’m banking on stronger.

Either way, your work is not yet done young warriors.

After Going to Washington, Now What?

Well, that was an experience. Presenting on a panel before the FCC (click on “Recorded Panels”). Commissioner Clyburn showed up, a few media folks, DC insiders and other heavyweights on the panel. I was particularly happy not to have had a brain-to-tongue  malfunction. 

Heady stuff, this mixing and mingling in the corridors of power. But after the mics go dead, the Internet video feeds end, and the media files their stories, it’s good to assess the real value that come, or should come, from these exercises. This broadband stuff is deadly serious, and these folks at the FCC have an incredibly complex task before them.

Let’s talk about the upside of this workshop series. Our national broadband policy could put us on track to transform millions of lives and businesses in hundreds of communities. Or it could be great mental gymnastics that many look back on one day and wistfully ponder what could have been. I lean toward the former with a couple of cautions.

As Washington matters go with regard to setting telecom policy, this series of workshops appears to be a rather different beast. In the past, the Armani Suits Brigade (lobbyists) descend upon Congressional and agency’s policy makers to conduct backroom meetings and create directives that benefit the few more than the many. Though the workshops created some grumbling early on about being weighted heavily toward technologists, the panel I was on and the ones following have become more representative of the constituencies that broadband – and the lack thereof  – impacts the most.  

This is great because it’s an open forum, first off. Anyone can show up in person and on line to observe, ask questions and get answers. Granted, I’m a little biased, but the panelists were both knowledgeable about, and empathetic towards, those needing broadband, plus we offered good, practical and doable solutions to issues such as getting people to adopt broadband.

Here are two things that will elevate these workshops from being good public policy stepping stones to becoming great cornerstones of an effective national strategy that pulls the country from its sad broadband standing in the world.

First, The workshops need a big dose of participation by the people who actually own the problem, who feel the pain. One of my brothers, who’s a chaplain for athletes, says “unless you’re the one bleeding, you don’t really feel the pain.” If you’re going to do the type of needs analysis required to make the most effective technology plan, you have to bring the actual end users or potential end users who are feeling the lack-of-broadband pain into the process.

Those people sitting in the room listening to panelists probably weren’t low-income urban dwellers, rural mid-Westerners or small-town southerners fed up with the lack of broadband. The people dialing in to watch these workshops likely weren’t from un-served communities or those who we want to reach who have no interest in broadband.  

One of us panelists might have had what the audience felt were the most brilliant ideas for marketing campaigns to increase broadband adoption. Another panelist observed that smartphones are very popular in low-income communities. But a half dozen people sitting on a panel who live the life we want to improve might have told us we don’t know a good idea from a hole in the ground. They might also tell us why smartphones are popular so we don’t create some assumption-based strategy that hurts rather than helps this trend.   
The value of the workshops to date will be doubled or tripled if the FCC brings the people with the pain into the needs analysis process. But you have to go to them. As I said last week in my FierceBroadband column, go into formerly un- and underserved rural and urban areas that now have effective community-driven broadband networks. See firsthand what technologies they’re using, how these technologies were selected, what were the challenges to implementing the technology, what are the challenges to keeping everything operational and current.

Then go into the hood, the backwater, the outpost where broadband is not. Walk the streets and the country roads to truly understand what economic development agencies are talking about when they say broadband can improve businesses. Let community leaders tell you the struggles of dealing with recalcitrant incumbents and recalcitrant constituents.

Before I forget, let me get to the other caution I have. Whether these stepping stones (workshops) become cornerstones leading to meaningful and effective broadband strategy depends heavily on keeping them from being co-opted by the typical DC lobbyist machine. Unlike those who have the broadband pain, and the many groups working in the trenches to help remove that pain, those protecting big business interests roost in D.C. to tilt the rules in the favor of incumbents.

At some key points in the development of effective national broadband, the best interests of the those who need better broadband will not align with incumbents’ perceptions of their best interests. Compromise will be difficult without protecting our pitiful status quo. At those junctures, will the needs of the many carry more weight than the needs of the Armani Suits Brigade?

In the meantime, let’s keep moving this ball forward.

Monday Morning To-do List

I know, this is probably a really bad time to talk about the work that comes next in the broadband dash for dollars. But there are a bunch of folks sitting on the sidelines waiting for the Round 2 funding cycle, watching people’s submission trials this week with Round 1, and maybe contemplating just going to the beach instead.

Anyway, the fact remains, there’s still work to be done by everyone involved with this adventure in technology.

1. Everyone who applied, or at least initiated your application upload, be sure to re-read all the details on the next 2 steps of the NOFA journey. You can’t do much about the initial screening except wait to see if you make it. However, there are things you can do to get ready for the second step because the NOFA gives you an idea what to expect.    

2. I cannot emphasize enough that you do whatever you can to gather data about who doesn’t have coverage in your proposed service area. Somewhere along the line, I believe you’re going to need it. Besides, it can’t hurt to have more rather than less data about who needs what.

3. If you don’t already, have a plan B in case you don’t get funding this round. If you plan to go for Round 2 should you not win this round, pay careful attention from item # 5 on. By the time you find out if you have the grant or not, it may be too late to do many of these activities.  

4. Prepare to fight off any incumbent challenges to your proposal. Don’t forget there’s that pesky little NOFA rule that allows service providers who didn’t have the wherewithal to submit a solution of their own to challenge you after all the work you’ve done. I watched very carefully how Philly beat down Verizon’s challenge to that wireless network in 2004, and I created a media and citizen’s lobby campaign to give you a stronger hand in fighting off such a challenge. Get it here.

5. Those of you planning to pursue Round 2 funding, listen up. Go to this list (http://www.successful.com/news/articles.html), pull up and read my columns in Fierce Broadband, TMCnet, Daily Wireless and Public CIO. Many of these address steps you need to start taking months before the application due date. Some people ignored these steps until it was way too late for Round 1. Don’t miss the train this time.  

6. A lot of you need to decide if you’re going to fight back against rules that pretty much put communities’ interest far behind those of incumbents. I mean, letter-writing, e-mailing, foot-stomping, political pressure applying, in-you-face-but-respectful insistence on changes in the rules! Too many people sat back and bitched quietly rather than give full-throated voice to their concerns.

Don’t for a minute think that this doesn’t matter. As much as we were told the rules were set, the rules can’t be changed, they shouldn’t be changed until maybe the next funding round, here comes the incumbents’ $1000-Armani Suit Brigade. They stomped, wrote letters, got in NTIA’s face. And what happened? Concessions to the unchangeable rules that make it harder for meaningful broadband projects to succeed.

As we get past this week of uploading hell with your NOFA applications, ponder what rules you would change if President Obama tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to be in charge of this process.

7. In the spirit of helpful nudging, here’s a list for which there seems to be a consensus of disdain, dismay and disillusionment. Pick one or two items to make it your mission to address in whatever way you think will produce a change. I’ll be adding my own fuel to the effort over the next few weeks.

  • Either the incumbent challenge needs to go away, or NTIA/RUS provide applicants a valid ability to successfully defend their turf
  • Change the definition of broadband from it’s ridiculously low level to one that is based on the identified needs of the communities to be served.
  • Eliminate the “advertised speed” rule that defines an area as being un- or underserved based on who’s advertising what speed. Definitions have to rely on actual speeds received.   
  • Re-write the rules and reporting requirements that are heavily geared to telecom companies, adding requirements that take into account community-owned networks as well as networks built by public-private partnerships.
  • No more anonymous volunteers reviewing grants. Personally, I think using volunteers wasn’t such a great deal given the short time to adequately prep these folks, but at least the bugs may be worked out by Round 2 so the program runs as smoothly as other volunteer peer review panels. But this secret panel crap is for  the birds and no one should have sat quietly for that.

Feel free to add to the list. But let’s commit to spending part of September doing some amount of lobbying for better rules. NTIA has said it’s open to, and encourages, feedback on the rules and expressed a willingness to make changes. Are you going to take advantage of the moment?

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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