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$350 Million Internet Program Being Set Up to Fail

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The chances are increasing exponentially that the government's $350 million stimulus program to track where high-speed Internet access is, and where it isn't, will become a massive boondoggle controlled by the very people with the most at stake in creating their own reality -- the telephone and cable companies.

That industry needs to present as pretty a picture of broadband deployment as it can, in part to prevent aggressive legislation from being passed by Congress or new rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission to make up for the U.S.'s continually declining standing in the world broadband comparisons. The specific ranking, 15 or 21, or whatever, doesn't matter so much as the fact that we keep slipping.

Needless to say, this is yet another cautionary tale of the perils of broadband mapping, and shows that it's now more likely than ever that the telephone and cable companies will prevail in their fight to control the information on which a national broadband plan is based. Oh, yes, and up to $350 million of taxpayer money will be totally wasted.

On July 9, AT&T will largely complete its mission to make irrelevant one of the leading state broadband agencies in the country. The agency is the e-NC authority, an organization created eight years ago by the state legislature to track the availability of Internet services and to push for more and faster Internet service across the state. The agency has won any number of awards recognitions over the years. Jane Patterson, the executive director, is a world-class expert on broadband. And yet, AT&T, with the cooperation of compliant state legislators, will put the state government in the position of favoring a powerful private company over a state agency.

State Rep. Bill Faison (D), who chaired the state House Select Committee on High-Speed Internet Access in Rural Areas, recently sent around an invitation to the July 9 press briefing. Faison said that he and other members of his committee were "very pleased to tell you that our efforts to achieve a statewide map accurately and precisely depicting broadband availability have finally borne fruit."

The fruit is not the product of the state agency, however. Faison used his announcement to criticize e-NC: "Until now, we have not had a map showing street address availability of broadband. e-NC has generated maps based on information disclosed by the providers which are based on the average number of customers with broadband access in a wire center. Unfortunately, information provided in this fashion does not allow you to see where broadband is and where it is not, it does not allow you to see the holes in the Swiss cheese, and depending on the area the hole may be larger than the cheese."

Note the circular logic here. Faison and other members of his committee are criticizing e-NC for their maps, which were based on information supplied, or not, as it were, by the telecom industry. The state agency has been hampered by AT&T's unwillingness to supply broadband data and its insistence on a very restrictive non-disclosure agreement for information the company did supply.

Instead of pushing the industry to stop stonewalling e-NC, Faison and the others trashed e-NC's work and commended the work of AT&T, the very company that hamstrung e-NC. Here is Faison's praise for the industry: "In the face of legislation recommended by the Committee which would have required the providers to disclose precise information to the Legislature for our staff to generate a detailed map of availability, the providers have come together and collectively decided to provide the information through Connected Nation, to not only provide the "street address" map but also to make the map both accessible and interactive through the internet. Special recognition should be given to AT&T, Embarq, Sprint, Time Warner Cable, The Cable Association, the Telephone Co-op association, and Alltel for their work on this matter."

Now that the state will have a "good" map in hand, it can grab some of that stimulus money, Faison said: "North Carolina will be one of only six states with a detailed "street address" interactive map of broadband availability. It positions us advantageously to obtain a portion of $7.4 billion in Stimulus money available for broadband deployment. A map, such as ours, is now a precondition for obtaining this portion of the Stimulus money. The collaborative work of the Committee and the providers has now postured North Carolina in the most favorable of positions to not only obtain this portion of the Stimulus money, but also to advance broadband deployment for our people."

In its work, e-NC has two main tasks (although it does lots of other things as well, such as the well-regarded digital literacy programs). One is mapping. With the industry map, that function is severely diminished. The other is to give incentive grants for companies to extend broadband service. The state is in a budget crisis, and grants were eliminated for the current fiscal year, with more cuts at the agency to come.

At least one company fails to see the irony. Embarq, which was given "special recognition" by Faison for its help in co-opting mapping, was the recipient of a $693,000 grant announced in March. The grant was given by the e-NC Authority, the very agency Embarq is helping to torpedo. Perhaps they should give the money back.

AT&T, by the way, is the prime mover behind Connected Nation. The cautionary tale is that the company will stop at nothing in order to foist its version of broadband reality on the public, including destroying e-NC. And there is little that policymakers can do about it, thanks to the Broadband Data Improvement Act, taken from legislation sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) that Congress passed last year. The bill sets up awards to go to the group most wired into state governments -- Connected Nation, backed by the army of telephone and cable lobbyists around the country.

What kind of maps will the American public get for its $350 million? Here are two examples. The first is from Connect Ohio the Connected Nation affiliate that will cost the state about $7 million. This is their map of Summit County, around Akron.

It is a pink blob, which supposedly represents where broadband is available, measuring distances from telephone company facilities. It is devoid of detail.

Now, for comparison, here is a map of the same area done by Strategic Networks Group, a private company not eligible for federal mapping grant money under the terms of the Broadband Data Improvement Act, for the Knight Center of Digital Excellence:

This map delineates much more clearly which areas are served with what type of technology. But it gets better. Here is a more complete slide deck from SNG's work. A comparison with Connect Ohio's work is invited. One is worth the money.

The government notice setting out the terms for the mapping grants was sadly deficient. Even if one grants that Connected Nation was wired in under the terms of a misguided bill, the agency notice of funds availability had no conflict-of-interest safeguards. There are no requirements for transparency or for verification of information. There are no standard data sets to make sure all the maps measure the same things. Instead, there are what appear to be protections for "confidential" information that could render the process useless.

Perhaps some of these deficiencies can be cured at the program moves forward. Perhaps not. In either case, these cautionary tales are getting a bit tiresome. Jury-rigged RFPs, no-bid contracts, hot-wired legislatures and state agencies are no way to run a program as important as broadband.

The stimulus broadband mapping program is set up for massive failure unless changes are made. Congress has to allow more competition for grants. The Durbin argument that private, for-profit companies shouldn't do public work like broadband mapping, while non-profits should, falls apart when one considers the advantages of an independent company vs. a compromised non-profit. The agencies responsible need more detailed criteria to protect the public investment. Consistency, transparency, public verification and less protection of information are needed. Maybe then can an #epic fail can be avoided.