What To Expect From The National Broadband Map.

Hey everyone, remember the National Broadband Map? As part of the Broadband Stimulus in the American Recover and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Congress let the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) use a chunk of money to fund a national broadband map that they had ordered NTIA to create in 2008 as part of the Broadband Data Improvement Act (BDIA). Congress ordered NTIA to finish the project by February 17, 2011. NTIA handed out a chunk of change to make it happen back in 2009, and no one has heard much about it since.

NTIA has now leaked that they plan to release the first iteration of the map on February 17 – the day Congress ordered them to release it. This gives NTIA serious bragging rights at the next social get together with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). “Yes, we got it done on time.” Asst. Secretary Larry Strickling, head of NTIA will say to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski over a plate of nachos. “It would have been so awkward to have to ask for a month extension. We spent all our grant money on time as well, despite having to totally invent a multibillion dollar program and a tracking system from scratch. Really, staying on time isn’t that hard. You just need to have a plan. Speaking of which, how goes the National Broadband Plan implementation? Still on track?” At which point Genachowski will smile politely and head off for another mojito.

My predictions for the National Broadband Map below:

Seer and sage that I am, I will fearlessly make several predictions about the upcoming National Broadband Map:

1.    It will be the most detailed, comprehensive look at last mile data ever achieved on a national level. Despite this —

2.    Lots of people will be disappointed because it will still have mammoth gaps, will not be at the right level of granularity, and will fail to focus on several policy-critical questions.

3.    Lots of people will dispute the accuracy of the map in specific locations.

4.    A number of industry folks, joined by their assembled chorus of supporters, will harshly criticize any suggestion that we have anything less that God’s Own Perfect Broadband Infrastructure in this, the Greatest  Best Country God Has Ever Given Man On The Face of the Earth.  They will accuse the NTIA of cherrypicking data to support their wicked pro-regulatory agenda and justify their wasteful stimulus spending.

5.    A number of other people will claim that the numbers are way too positive, utterly overstate the level of availability of broadband, and that this proves NTIA is in cahoots with the carriers to support their wicked de-regulatory agenda.

For myself, I’m trying to maintain a set of reasonable expectations. As with everything else NTIA has done to fulfill their responsibilities under the ARRA, I expect the folks at NTIA have worked hard and done their best under a set of constraints that includes technical constraints, legal constraints, and yes, political constraints. That means that along the way they made various cuts and decisions about what they considered feasible, including a number we at PK were very unhappy about. All these things conspire to produce something incrementally useful rather than something dramatically game changing.

The key point to stress, however, is useful.  Consistent with Prediction #1, I expect this to be an enormous leap forward with regard to our current understanding about the state of broadband deployment.  At the same time, however, I expect it to have some serious flaws and deficiencies for a number of reasons.

First, NTIA does not consider itself as having the authority to actually compel local providers to cough up information. Under the scheme imposed by the combination of the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2008 and the ARRA, NTIA gave grants to states which the states then gave to private entities to  do state level maps, which NTIA then incorporate into a national map. NTIA’s best club for ensuring the accuracy of data and the level of desired detail is to threaten to claw back the money from the states if they fail to perform.

The result is almost certain to be less than satisfactory, although still better then the FCC’s approach – which consists of asking providers in a way designed to enhance the answer and promising never to verify the results because why would providers possibly exaggerate their deployment to the FCC? Mind you, it was Congress’ dissatisfaction with this approach that prompted them to give the broadband map to NTIA. OTOH, it was telco lobbying that prompted Congress to require NTIA to use this more complicated, indirect method.

Which brings us to the next point. Because BDIA was an expression with Congress’ frustration with the FCC’s “all is nifty with God’s Most Perfect Broadband Infrastructure in The Greatest Best Country God Has Ever Given Man On The Face of the Earth (hereinafter “GMPBIITGBCGHEGMOTFOTE”)” approach, BDIA directs NTIA to focus on last-mile deployment. That’s not a bad thing, but it does mean a lot of critical questions remain unanswered.

Finally, NTIA also had to contend with resistance from the “three letter agencies,” as we like to call them here in DC. The good folks at Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and associated counter-terrorism folks at FBI, NSA, CIA, DIA, and ASS – the last being the part of the horse these agencies tend to resemble. These agencies are convinced that providing any data to the public in usable form is simply creating a take out menu for terrorist targets blah blah blah blah. If these guys had their way, they would stamp the entire map “classified.”

Nevertheless, NTIA bears responsibility for decisions that are likely to impact accuracy. I do not forget, for example, that NTIA chose to back down in the face of carrier protests rather than insist on more detailed information, and that they have tremendous discretion even within the context of the BDIA to chose their area of focus. When they roll out the map next week, they will come in for their fair share of deserved criticism grounded in fact. Indeed, in good pundit fashion, I expect to be dishing some of it out.

But good criticism is about fixing things and putting them in context for better understanding, not just about venting frustration and feeling good (not that I don’t indulge in the later as well). One of the more encouraging traits that NTIA has displayed throughout the BTOP process is their willingness to actually listen to their critics and to try to improve their processes as they move forward. Broadband Map release 1.0 will undoubtedly be flawed. But we should still be prepared to appreciate its positive features, and provide good feedback to improve Broadband Map 2.0.

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