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$350 Million In Mapping Money To Be Wasted, Unless...

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It's unfortunate that the issue of broadband mapping is taking up any time and energy, much less about $350 million in stimulus money. Discussion of mapping takes away from discussion of the real issue - deployment, and why large companies have to be begged to provide service to some areas while they go to court and to state legislatures to prevent others from filling the gap.

The whole point of a legitimate broadband mapping exercise is for the public and policymakers to see where the service is being offered, at what speeds and price and, as importantly, where it isn't. The "why" it isn't being offered is a separate question the map can't answer. The whole strategy of the telecom industry is to keep any mapping from revealing embarrassing information, like low speeds, high prices and spotty coverage and to keep anyone else from verifying the information it does put forward.

It is against that background that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) devoted one session of its marathon series of events on the broadband part of the stimulus package to mapping. Just about everyone on the panel on implementing the broadband mapping part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stressed the need for detailed information and for transparency of data.

Speakers such as Sharon Gillet, commissioner of the Mass. Department of Telecommunications and Cable, talked about the need for transparency and accountability, for accurate, verifiable information. She demonstrated the difference between data supplied by the telecom carriers to the FCC, and data collected locally, with more unserved areas appearing on maps with independent information.

Erin Lee, from the National Governors Association, raised the possibility that information might have to be collected by ordinary citizens if it isn't provided by telecom carriers. I was on the panel also and made the same point - that NTIA needs a Plan B in the extremely likely event that the operators of telecom networks stick to their traditional posture of providing the information they want to provide,

Any guesses which panel participant wasn't with the program. That would be the representative from the telecom industry. It's not surprising, because the industry, along with its cable brethren, doesn't want transparency nor does it want accurate information to be reported.

It was left to Gillet to put the capper on the discussion. Massachusetts had spent considerable time and energy doing its own broadband mapping. Discussion moderator Robert Atkinson asked her what took up most of her cost and time. Her answer: Negotiating with carriers over data.

The game of hide the ball wasn't part of the original discussion. It was overlooked in Congress' enchantment over broadband mapping. The idea of mapping to find the gaps in broadband deployment was an easy sell for legislators two years ago when the stories started circulating on Capitol Hill in legislators' offices and at hearings. It had all the elements - those public/private partnerships of which Congress is so fond, startling results in a rural state not known for technical capability, lots of pretty charts and graphs, endorsements from not only the telephone companies but also from the Communications Workers of America. And when it came to writing a bill, Connect Kentucky's friends were front and center, creating a model to connect the nation, as it were. The legislation, called the "Connect the Nation Act," was introduced April 24, 2007 by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), was written by and for the Connected Nation model, singling out non-profits to receive grants, for example. The key concepts have survived today in mapping bills passed last year, which was incorporated into the stimulus package.

Now with $350 million on the table - an absurd amount by any reckoning - mapping has moved front and center again. While representatives of governments and public interest groups argued for transparency and accountability, the telecom industry was sticking to its guns, trotting out the line Connected Nation used in its comments to the FCC, asking for deference to industry-backed groups.

Connected Nation is already gearing up to capture a big piece of the action, holding a webinar to tell state agencies that CN is one go-to group, one-stop shop that states need to make their mapping dollars work. That would be unfortunate on any number of levels, in part because the industry strategy has been to use public dollars to privatize the mapping function, as PK, Common Cause, the Media and Democracy Coalition and Reclaim the Media argued in a recent report.

And their representative was front and center defending their model which, not surprisingly, puts a premium on protecting their information, as opposed to the new stimulus law, which does not. The original Connected Nation bill, introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin in 2007, was written to the CN model, complete with restricting grants to eligible non-profit groups and lots of mentions of. Much of that DNA survived into the next iteration, which passed last year as S. 1492, also known as the Broadband Data Improvement Act,which was then funded through the stimulus legislation.

The industry representative at the NTIA panel kept up the company line when he urged NTIA simply to aggregate existing state maps produced by those receiving grants. This theme was consistent with the Connected Nation theme, when that group urged the FCC in prior comments not to do any mapping on its own, but to aggregate the work done by state groups. CN made that same argument in comments to the FCC. They want grantees under their designated grant program, including "special confidentiality protections" to do the work to be submitted to the FCC. Nowhere in their comments was the mention of the very restrictive non-disclosure agreements that CN requires or the sponsorship of the organization by large telecom and cable carriers.

Enough already. It's clear that the public sector wants transparency and accountability in broadband data reporting and subsequent mapping. The industry, voiced through Connected Nation, does not. There's no point in spending lots of time negotiating this. Both the Commission and NTIA should move to Plan B, which is collecting information without involving the telephone and cable companies. There are legitimate, for-profit mapping companies that don't have ties to communications carriers, there are community groups, there are any number of other approaches that could be used. It won't be the quick and easy way to getting the information, but it will have to do.

Then we can move on to the real issue of how to bring broadband to areas that those same big carriers don't want to serve. They know where they are, even if they don't want to tell us.