The U.S. government has made sweeping broadband-related policy decisions for years without having the slightest idea how wired the country is for service. Much of our broadband data came courtesy of ISP lobbyists, and as such reflected a shiny, rather happy reality where nearly all consumers had the imaginary choice of more than half-a-dozen ISPs
. ISPs apparently believed if they could convince the government that the state of broadband coverage and competition was largely perfect, nobody would try to do anything to improve it.
This effort largely succeeded for more than a decade, resulting in significant deregulation of DSL and cable networks and regulators unwilling to address sector competitive shortcomings, or the fact that U.S. consumers pay some of the highest prices for broadband among all developed nations
This all only started changing recently, when the FCC started actually collecting real data
, and the American Recover and Reinvestment Act set aside $293 million to engage in a national broadband mapping project. Though we hadn't heard much about the effort since it was introduced in 2009, the fruit of that labor by law must be unveiled on February 17. As Harold Feld correctly predicts
, reactions will largely come in two flavors when the map arrives: industry folk upset the map doesn't re-create the mirage of a perfect broadband reality they've carefully cultivated for years, and those who worry the map is a $300 million pile of nonsense corrupted by sector lobbyists. Feld walks between those two, arguing the NTIA probably did the best they could:
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.
As Feld notes, the NTIA had their hands tied on several levels in trying to get accurate mapping data from ISPs, who for reasons cited above have fought the release of accurate broadband data (especially price) for years. They also had their hands tied with a vast array of confidentiality agreements aimed at keeping much of this data out of the hands of consumers. There's also the issue that much of this mapping was conducted by Connected Nation, a controversial group accused of being largely a policy construct of larger ISPs
-- proclaiming to accurately map broadband for taxpayer cash -- while actually being motivated to obscure and secure that data, derail more open mapping programs, and promote incumbent policy.
In other words, the resulting map will likely give us only partial glimpse of true coverage, with much of the important data (including price) obscured from public view. Despite all this, Feld mirrors Public Knowledge's general optimistic philosophical bent on these issues (an emotional necessity in the consumer advocacy profession) -- namely that this is a step forward from the hallucinated data years of yore. Sitting in the peanut gallery with nothing at risk we have the luxury of being more cynical -- and think that a bad map may be more dangerous than no map at all. Whatever your thoughts, next Thursday we all get to see exactly what $300 million buys you.