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National Debate Takes Shape Over Broadband Access

June 10, 2009

Earlier this year, Congress and President Obama, seeing an opportunity to stimulate the economy while improving the nation's digital infrastructure, set aside $7.2 billion for broadband programs in the 2009 Recovery Act (read SSTI's analysis of the Recovery Act in the February 19 issue). Citing the need for a modernized digital infrastructure to ensure U.S. competitiveness, the act included funding for broadband mapping and deployment to help make sure that all Americans have access to high-speed Internet services. A controversy, however, has grown in the wake of the Recovery Act over how that money should be spent.

The federal Recovery Act allocates $350 million for a new program called the State Broadband Data and Development Grant program, which is intended to help develop and maintain a national broadband inventory map. The program, to be administered jointly by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), will help develop and maintain a national broadband inventory map.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a story examining the controversy over Connected Nation Inc., the largest U.S. provider of broadband service maps. Connected Nation is currently under contract with six states (Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia) to help create accurate maps of broadband availability. At issue is the fact that Connected Nation is supported by several telecommunications companies, including AT&T and Comcast, which have a stake in how the federal funds are used.

Connected Nation issued a press release following the passage of the Recovery Act making the case that state public-private partnerships, such as those engaged in by Connected Nation, would be necessary for the success of the broadband stimulus. The company maintains that its experience shows it is better-equipped than the state to obtain information about broadband availability from Internet service providers.

The difficulty in obtaining information from service providers also makes it difficult to verify Connected Nation's findings. Providers often are reluctant to reveal information about their service areas to the state. This reluctance serves to make Connected Nation's services both more valuable and less verifiable.

Several groups have objected to the company's methods and expressed concerns about its growing popularity among states. Earlier this year, digital public interest group Public Knowledge charged that Connected Nation uses its position to represent the interests of the telecommunications industry and prevents efforts to expand broadband access when those efforts would mean decreased profits for providers. The group argues that Connected Nation uses non-disclosure agreements to keep states from verifying the accuracy of broadband maps and to prevent more in-depth examinations of access speeds and costs to consumers.

The Wall Street Journal article cites the example of Kentucky, where Connected Nation has advertised the increase in broadband availability from 60 percent in 2004 to 95 percent in 2009. The article claims that many in the state dispute the idea that 95 percent of areas currently have access to high-speed service and that rapid an increase would be unlikely. Connected Nation explains that some of the change in coverage statistics is due to corrections made to the map since its release to reflect coverage that already existed.

Connected Nation's response to the Wall Street Journal article is available at: http://connectednation.com/in_the_news/the_blog/.

Not all states, however, rely on private companies to oversee their mapping efforts. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine recently released the state's first broadband availability map, which can be viewed online. The map was produced through a collaborative effort between the state's Center for Innovative Technology, the Virginia Information Technology Agency and the Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance. The data was collected through the voluntary participation of broadband providers, but without the oversight of a private firm. A separate effort now is being lead by Virginia Tech e-Corridors to improve on the new map by adding vertical details, including physical infrastructure, wireless access and transfer speeds.

Read more about the Virginia Broadband Mapping Initiative at: http://www.otpba.vi.virginia.gov/.