I Say Broadband Maps, You Say Boondoggle

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.