OneWebDay: Briefing on Broadband Mapping

September 10, 2009

This essay and accompanying video are part of Elon University’s participation in the fourth annual OneWebDay on Sept. 22. Digital inclusion is this year’s theme.

Before you can solve a problem, you have to define it. So, before you can bring broadband to unconnected homes, you have to find out where those homes are. Sounds simple. But it isn’t. And how we go about identifying these homes has great bearing on whether a key aspect of closing the digital divide is successful.

Since the U.S. government pledged $350 million for broadband mapping as part of last February’s economic recovery package, the methodology, objectivity and transparency of the nation’s largest broadband mapping organization, nonprofit Connected Nation, have come under fire from public interest groups.

Critics make the following arguments:

  • That Connected Nation’s reliance on sampling in lieu of a door-to-door census tends to overstate the degree of connectivity.
  • That the funding the nonprofit receives from large telecom companies and the strong ties between these companies and its board of directors present a conflict of interest.
  • That non-disclosure agreements with telecoms prevent stakeholders from evaluating the accuracy of its surveys and from making full use of them to expand access.

In media interviews, Connected Nation representatives have countered:

  • That it reconciles its surveys against engineers’ on-the-ground observations and with public feedback and continously
    updates its maps to reflect this new information.
  • That its board includes members of leading consumer groups and its business model depends on serving the interests of small and large telecommunications companies alike.
  • That disclosing the location of sensitive infrastructure compromises security. All other information, they say, is made public.

What this conflict reveals as much as anything is a shortage of guidance from the federal government. To its credit, the government has identified broadband connectivity as a priority and put up serious money to help accomplish it. What it hasn’t done, however, is establish standards strict enough to ensure broadband mapping is done in a consistent and reliable manner.

Furthermore, since this work in being done under the auspices of economic recovery, the primary goal is spending the money quickly, potentially to the detriment of quality. It’s great broadband mapping is being done. But, if we’re to be successful in narrowing the digital divide, it’s important that it be done right.

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