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Summary:

Back when explorers were setting out from Spain, England and Portugal with instructions to find God, gold and glory, maps were a strategic asset. Even today, the in-depth mapping and visual information provided by Google Maps and Street View is a source of concern to the Pentagon […]

istock_000006279005smallBack when explorers were setting out from Spain, England and Portugal with instructions to find God, gold and glory, maps were a strategic asset. Even today, the in-depth mapping and visual information provided by Google Maps and Street View is a source of concern to the Pentagon and other governments because of the information they can provide. So it’s no wonder that details of the federal government’s plan to spend $350 million to create a national broadband map are coming under such scrutiny. Today’s Wall Street Journal covered some of the controversy, including publicizing questions about one of the nation’s key broadband map creators, Connected Nation. We touched on the controversy last year but Public Knowledge has the broadest amount of information on the topic.

Debates over Connected Nation’s ties to the industry and overall effectiveness are not, however, the only concerns people have over the plan, which is required as part of the Broadband Data Improvement Act (and funded in the stimulus bill). For example some of our commenters have balked at paying that much for a map given that the carriers already know exactly which areas they serve. I talked to Jim Stegeman, president of broadband mapping firm CostQuest Associates and a member of a group of companies that are offering broadband mapping services to states through the LinkAmerica Alliance, to find out more about the mapping process. Stegeman has helped compile a broadband map for Wyoming and is working on one for Alabama.

Stegeman said it takes about 5-6 months to create an initial statewide map, but that the speed of a mapping project depends on how quickly carriers turn over relevant information, and in what format. Some have very clean data, he said, while others only reveal the locations of DSLAM equipment and let the mapping company extrapolate how far the copper could travel from it. At times, Stegeman said, his firm has had to get the information it needed from the phone book.

“The process can be shortened if providers are willing to focus on getting us NDAs, and getting the data turned around quickly,” Stegeman said.

In general, smaller operators have better information than the bigger companies, Stegeman said. There are also issues around splitting out different types of broadband and classes of access speed. A 50 Mbps symmetrical-fiber connection is different from a 768 kbps satellite connection, yet both are still classified as broadband.

After the mapping company gets information from the providers, it needs to map it to GIS coordinates. Stegeman said that sometimes the mapping information can provide good business intelligence for a carrier, which can entice ISPs to play along. For example, one of the things another firm in the LinkAmerica Alliance does is talk to residents about their demand for broadband (interestingly an Alabama focus group found that some residents didn’t want broadband because they associated it with porn), and then make that information available to ISPs. Because the maps often come with recommendations as to where it may be cheapest to deploy broadband to the most users, service providers may also spot new market opportunities.

From his experience in Wyoming, Stegeman said fixed wireless made the most sense for rural areas requiring an investment of $1,200 to $1,400 per home passed. DSL was slightly higher per subscriber, and fiber cost about $25,000 to $30,000 per mile, which just wasn’t economical considering how far apart people were spread. Cable was the most expensive based on an assumption that they’d have to build out new cable plants.

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By Stacey Higginbotham
  1. re: “After the mapping company gets information from the providers, it needs to map it to GIS coordinates. ” What exactly are “GIS coordinates?” Are these different than latitude/longitude? Are the data not collected with latitude/longitude?

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  2. We are a small Wyoming Internet service provider who declined to participate in the Wyoming mapping project performed by CostQuest. We made this decision because the study was commissioned by the Wyoming Telecommunications Council, a state government body. Wyoming has a very strong open records law, which very likely could have been used to obtain the exact data which we submitted, NDAs and assurances of confidentiality notwithstanding. And that data could have been used by large, unscrupulous competitors — such as the incumbent cable and telephone monopolies — to take anticompetitive actions against us.

    We must always remember one of the essential elements of any census — broadband or otherwise — is confidentiality. People, for good reason, will not reveal sensitive information about themselves or their businesses unless confidentiality is assured — preferably by law. One of the good things about Connected Nation is that they have an ironclad NDA and would be hired by the Federal (not state) government, which would allow the information to be kept in confidence.

    Do not believe the FUD spread by Public Knowledge, an inside-the-Beltway lobbying group funded heavily by Google (which has motives of its own: it wants the Internet to become a heavily regulated duopoly so that ISPs are straitjacketed and can never compete with it). Unless we want a broadband mapping effort to kill competition by enabling anticompetitive tactics, Connected Nation or a group like them is the right way to go.

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  3. So Brett — you would prefer “statistics” compiled by a group funded by those same “large, unscrupulous competitors” as opposed to a simple map that just shows whether or not broadband is available or not? Which is more unscrupulous and evil?

    Seems to me like some providers fear maps because it would give consumers real data about where coverage is and where coverage isn’t, instead of having to rely on advertising that claims “more bars anywhere” with no numbers to back those claims up. And really, how much information could your competitors gain from a map that they couldn’t figure out from driving around and spotting cell towers?

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    1. Paul, I don’t think you understand. One of the great things about Connected Nation is that it plays all of the big guys off against one another. None of them want their confidential data revealed to the others, and the confidentiality upon which they insist extends to smaller providers like us.

      You also seem to think that we’re a cellular provider. We’re not. We’re a WISP. That’s very different. The locations of our access points are not obvious. And playing our cards close to our vest is essential to competing with the big guys, who, with modern GIS technology, could literally target us for anticompetitive tactics on a block-by-block basis.

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      1. Whether ConnectedNation, LinkAmerica or BroadMap or other, there are alliances that will bend the best of them toward their interests or the interests of their consortium. Whether it is Google or AT&T or Verizon or whatever…this country is rife with people trying to influence to maximize their outcome.

        Brett, I think that you are happy with a small company – and the others are not. You want to protect your local knowledge, and the others want to grab it. Bottom line is that if you provide a better service at a competitive price, why would anyone be successful in targeting you. If you are not, then you will cease to exist. Pretty simple.

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  4. [...] I Say Broadband Maps, You Say Boondoggle [...]

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  5. [...] Reinvestment and Recovery Act the mapping project was finally funded. We’ve covered the challenges inherent in creating a broadband map, and some of our issues with the plans to create the map that was unveiled today, but even if this [...]

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