Broadband Stimulus Plan Has No Map for Success

[qi:004] The federal government is spending $7.2 billion over the next year to bring better broadband to the masses, a lofty goal by any measure. But the feds are making it loftier than it needs to be in that it has no idea where people without broadband live — which is like planning targeted radiation therapy for a cancer without knowing where the cancer is.

There’s an entire 100-plus-page document noting the rules around who can apply for grants and how those grant applications will be judged. The grant recipients will be judged primarily on whether or not they plan to provide broadband to people who don’t have any. There’s even $350 million set aside to help the government determine who those people are, but there’s no way it will figure that out by Friday — which is when the first round of broadband grant applications are due.

Knowing that, the government has decided to back off from its demands for quality data about current broadband access and speeds from a third party and instead rely on the telecommunications industry’s information. On Friday, the Department of Commerce, which is running the National Telecommunications Information Agency, declared that the broadband maps only needs to contain block-level data, not the address-level data for which consumers groups had hoped. And it said the maps don’t need to contain information about the actual speeds offered because the large telcos view such information as competitive and wouldn’t give it up. I told you so.

So all the broadband maps will contain is general data about who has broadband (remember, that’s 768 kbps downlink speeds) on any given block — specifically what speeds are advertised, not what’s actually delivered. That difference could be significant for the telcos, whose DSL lines provide service to 25 percent of the U.S. (according to Leichtman Research Group) and whose speeds vary depending on how far a resident lives from the remote terminal. It’s less significant for the cable companies, which provide a shared network where speeds can vary depending on what a neighbor is doing on his or her connection, mostly because the cable company would be unlikely to see its network speeds dip below 768 kbps. For a nice analysis of why carriers can’t guarantee speeds, check out this post.

There are legitimate competitive concerns about releasing such detailed data in the public sphere, but if the government wants to spend money bringing broadband — however slow — to the masses tomorrow, it needs to know exactly where those masses live and whether or not they are receiving broadband today. It’s easy to find pockets without broadband in ostensibly covered neighborhoods, especially in areas where cable doesn’t reach and DSL is the only option.