Blog Post

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.

29 Responses to “Broadband Stimulus Plan Has No Map for Success”

  1. This was a good decision. Address level data would be great, but it is important to get the stimulus funding into the pipeline. In many unserved rural areas the answer to who currently has high speed broadband is the same for both the block and all the addresses on that block: Nobody, because it ain’t available.

    The government will probably be able to spend most or all of the broadband funding designated for unserved areas with very little risk of unintentionally funding new broadband sources for consumers who already have high speed broadband or broadband access.

    The address level data will be much more useful as we close in on the 100% availability goal. At that point it can be very helpful in optimizing expenditures. Unfortuneately it will take many years before we get to that point, even with the substantial broadband stimulus. funding

    Bruce Hahn
    American Homeowners Foundation.

  2. FIrst, Stacy complains that broadband stimulus money isn’t moving fast enough.

    Now the party line is that it’s not going to where it is needed.

    Don’t worry, next week she’ll have something else to complain about on deadline.

    • Stacey Higginbotham

      Doug, i have never complained that the money isn’t moving fast enough. In fact I have wondered how we can responsibly get $7.2B out the door in the short amount of time allocated by the legislation. I have written about the delays in funding, but that was to show the general disorganization surrounding the program.

  3. Tony Kessler

    :raises hand: Where can I supply my address? I’ve been waiting for broadband in my area for years. Broadband is available no more than 2 miles from my house, but not at my location.

  4. This is a real “go as far as you can see and when you get there, you’ll be able to see further” issue.

    How about starting with the most obvious areas that are under served. Like rural and urban clusters populations of 50,000 or less. I spent about 2 minutes googling to pull up census 2000 population results. I am fairly certain there is more current data. But using the 2000 stats as an example, 21% of the U.S. population (59,274,456 people) are in that group. Including urban clusters of 50,000 or less adds 30,155,545 to the group for a total of 89,430,001. That’s a little over 30% of the entire country.

    Let’s be conservative and chop that by 50% or 45,000,000 people that could use better broadband. And wouldn’t it be brilliant if those areas were supported with significantly more cost effective wifi and wimax to avoid traditional, bloated construction costs. I am told a single tower can cover a 10 mile radius but let’s chop that in half too. And the cost is a fraction of in the dirt to your house approaches.

    My point – there are very cost effective ways to begin in the most desperate areas of the country while everyone at the telcos and cablecos and government wrestle with the other areas of the country.

    Fort the record, I live in Los Angeles, use Time Warner / Roadrunner and apart from the odd outage, I get an average 5.5Mb/s down and about 1.4Mb/s up so I am not part of the country that needs help any time soon.

    Up the pole and out to the needy!!

  5. I agree with the above posters about the need for rural BB. I’m about 20 miles from a major upstate NY city, but, outside of our villages, there is no wired BB, and spotty, slow cellular BB. Yet, in most ways we are not different from suburban dwellers who have multiple choices. We are as educated and prosperous, with high level managerial or professional jobs. But we have only ten houses per mile, on average, making it more expensive to wire our roads.

    I’ve wondered why a service such as DSL is either available for a low price like $17 a month, or not available at all. It certainly is more expensive to supply the service to less populated areas. So why can’t that cost be passed along to us, those who would use the service? Verizon has upgraded the remote terminals in our town with fiber optic cables. The next step would be to add DSL cards in those boxes, which they say would cost $100,000. Why couldn’t at least some of that cost be added as a surcharge to the hundreds of households that would benefit from it? Many of us are already spending $70+ for satellite service. Is this prohibited by law?

  6. Most of this grant money is NOT going to large “telecos”… I think you need to read the fine print about the purpose of these grants. One of the companies I’ve come across that is applying for these grants is small size startups with interests in providing the Fiber and WiMax infrastructure to connect otherwise orphaned rural medical and educational institutions (where most of these places have limited broadband access now). They have invested in these backbones which will eventually be brokered to residential providers in these rural areas (keeping in mind that the original investors have the ability to completely dictate the terms of the usage).

    The money is not going straight into the pockets of the “telecos”

  7. Dansmusings

    Broadband in urban area is available and for the most part affordable almost anywhere. We can get elitist and quibble over access speeds and the like if we want. The real area of concern is the total lack of options for rural Americans. Two miles outside the city limits you are relegated to cellular service (expensive and a 5 gig cap) or satellite (even more expensive and not really high speed). This is the area that needs the investment. The telco’s and cable companies will not invest in the infrastructure because there are not enough customers to justify it. Maybe an influx of capital will help some other options emerge for the Americans that are really suffering from the “digital divide”.

  8. My parents still live in an area (Rural Western Massachusetts) where the fastest internet they can get (other then using a cell phone connection or satellite) is 28.8 dialup. There is no cable. There is no dsl. There is no fiber. There isn’t even telephone lines that support 56k modems. The town’s been fighting with the local cable company (comcast) for years to try to get them to wire the town but they just wont do it. I really hope the government gets this figured out so people (including my parents) can start benefiting ASAP.