Starting today (Sept. 10), the House Telecom Subcommittee is going to start looking at the broadband stimulus program and, perhaps next week, examine how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is doing under the new management. The national broadband plan, required under the Federal stimulus program, should also be a topic of discussion when the subcommittee holds an oversight hearing.
It would be a shame if the stimulus mapping/grant program and the broadband plan were considered in isolation, because they are, together, pieces of the same puzzle. Certainly the telephone and cable industries are considering them together, and using the leverage on one to influence the other to reach the inevitable conclusion that no new broadband policies are needed and that everything will be just fine if we leave the companies in control. Ignore our slumping world rankings for broadband. Ignore the lack of choice. Let's try to connect the dots into a long silver thread which would lead to less economic growth, less cool stuff online, and a further slippage of our status in the world.
The first dot is broadband mapping. If the maps show there is no problem with broadband coverage, then there should be no need for legislation, regulation or any other policies that would immediately be branded a "solution in search of a problem" by the telecom industries. Connected Nation plays a key role here, because their maps will be constructed in at least a dozen states, perhaps more, under the broadband stimulus plan.
Unfortunately, the way the stimulus mapping program is going, that piece is falling nicely into place. By agreeing to the telephone and cable industry's request - some might say caving into the industry's demand - that broadband speeds not be reported, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) opened the door for all kinds of mischief.
In public comments, NTIA officials said such an agreement was necessary to gain the cooperation of the telephone and cable companies. That's one way to look at it. Another way is that by requiring the carriers to report broadband speeds - even if their reports were inaccurate - at least there would be something on the record that could be corrected, criticized or cited. Without speed data, the value of the program diminishes. Even under the old rules, all the carriers had to show was "advertised" speeds, so the carriers started advertising. The speeds agreed to by NTIA as "broadband" in the first place are relatively slow anyway.
Second, by thinking it had to make a deal to ensure the carriers' cooperation, NTIA lost the opportunity to spotlight the availability of broadband data from other, non-carrier sources, which professional mapping companies around the country use. Even more important, if NTIA accepts the mapping applications from the states which, by one process or another, selected Connected Nation, then the stage is set for the telecom carriers to challenge every other aspect of the stimulus and the broadband plan because Connected Nation data will be transformed from information given under dubious circumstances by the carriers into information ratified by the Federal government through the award of mapping grants to states which selected CN. (That's assuming that NTIA won't reject any of those applications - a reasonable assumption at the moment given all that's gone on.)
At worst, Connected Nation is known for overstating the extent of broadband deployment, and for making certain that no one gets to see the underlying data on which it bases its numbers.
Connected Nation Bails on Old Kentucky Home
Incidentally, one state in which Connected Nation won't compete is its home turf, Kentucky. Connected Nation, in bizarre fashion, ducked out of providing new broadband mapping data to its old Kentucky home. Connected Nation sent a 26-page response to Kentucky saying they weren't going to submit a bid in response to Kentucky's request for proposals for mapping. Four pages of the package explained that CN couldn't meet the deadlines set by the Commonwealth for getting in broadband data. This despite the fact that, of any potential mappers, CK already mapped the state and thus should be considered to have a significant head start on the process.
The 22 other pages were letters of recommendation from various persons and organizations about how great Connected Nation (and its franchisees) are. One might think that those 22 pages of people would be disappointed to learn that the organization in which they expressed such confidence bailed on its home turf.
Is the deadline issue what chased Connected Nation out of Kentucky? Perhaps. There may be other factors at play, including that the Commonwealth wanted the vendor to work with all providers, and two of those significant sectors - cable and municipals - are not happy with the telephone-dominated nature of Connected Nation. It's also worth noting that the Kentucky state government, aware of the criticism of Connect Kentucky's efforts, was planning a very strict follow-up procedure for the stimulus mapping program. The Request for Proposals mentioned there would be a third-party verification of "any and all data at any location." That condition would seem to conflict with the general Connect philosophy of controlling access to the information. But we digress.
The Rest of the Mapping Dots - Discredit The Plan
Connect the mapping dot to the rest of the program. First, the maps could have a big effect on the stimulus grants. Michael Tattersall, founder of the mapping company Stratsoft, said:
Stratsoft has been mapping and modeling broadband availability for over 10 years. We cannot see how the information displayed on the Connected Nation maps are of sufficient detail, or sufficiently verifiable, to set policy for allocating the $7.2 billion of government funds to build-out more broadband to better serve more people.
If the maps show there is more coverage in rural areas than there actually is, then Tattersall said, the "smaller, in-state broadband providers that are applying for funds that will be directly affected by the quality and integrity of state-commissioned broadband maps." There could be challenges by the larger carriers, which didn't apply for stimulus funds, to broadband grants from smaller rural, municipal or neighborhood based on already existing Connected Nation maps.
Second, the maps fit into the larger scheme, to discredit the national broadband plan the FCC is required to produce under the stimulus bill. Bogus numbers in the stimulus context will also be used on the national plan context. But that's not all. In addition to using the maps, telecom carriers are also trying to freeze the idea of advancing broadband into what exists today.
AT&T led the charge on this, in a remarkable filing that would, in essence, freeze broadband where it is now because that's what the stimulus law directs the FCC to do when it formulates a broadband plan. AT&T said:
In other words, the definition of broadband must comprise services that can practicably be deployed in unserved and underserved areas--and must comprise services that today's unserved Americans can and will actually adopt.
There are a couple of responses to that. First, if AT&T had this attitude years ago, we would still be using analog Princess phones. Second, it's not at all clear the law meant to restrict the broadband plan to the stimulus goals and definitions. The section of the law dealing with the broadband plan simply requires the FCC to submit a national broadband plan in a year, and that the plan "shall seek to ensure that all people of the United States have access to broadband capability and shall establish benchmarks for meeting that goal."
Other industry comments strike the same theme - we have lots of private investment, people have choice, don't mind that Americans pay more for less than do consumers in other countries. Soon, "evidence" from the "NTIA-approved" maps will start to pop up. The FCC, as it compiles its plan and moves forward, will then have a choice - discredit the information collected under the broadband grants and start over or accept what's there. Neither is particularly attractive but will be necessary if we are to move beyond the Princess phone to the real broadband future that the FCC should envision.
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