Headed by Pulitzer prize winner Wendell Rawls, Jr., The Center for Public Integrity
recently sued the FCC
in order to more quickly get raw data on broadband penetration, previously requested by the group under the Freedom of Information Act. Since accurate calculation of this country's broadband infrastructure is a frequent discussion topic, we sat down briefly with Drew Clark, 15-year journalist and Project Manager for the group's "Well Connected"
effort, to explore what the group hopes to achieve.BBR
: Can you briefly touch on why you're suing the FCC, and precisely what data you hope to obtain? DC
: Here at the Center for Public Integrity's telecommunications and media project "Well Connected," for three years we've been providing the Media Tracker to allow individuals to find out more about the broadcast television, radio, cable and newspapers serving a particular city or zip code.
The television, radio and cable data comes straight from the FCC, which we then clean up and put in our database. The database is available for free on the Internet at www.publicintegrity.org/telecom
. When I joined the project in mid-August, I realized that it was just as important to provide some kind of mechanism to track the level of broadband service within a given region.
As I researched the subject, I realized that the FCC also has data about the companies that provide broadband within a particular zip code. It comes from the FCC Forum 477, which have been required from broadband providers since 2000. It would make a perfect fit for the Media Tracker.
Even though the agency provides information on the broadcast television, radio and cable companies serving an area, it does not do the same for broadband. Given the commitment by President Bush and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to encouraging broadband competition throughout the United States, this is a curious position.
We filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the data from the FCC. We want to make this information publicly available in the Media Tracker. When the FCC failed to respond to our request within the required 20 working days, we filed suit in the federal district court in Washington.BBR
: What will "Joe consumer"
be able to do with your project website once completed?DC
: On Tuesday, October 17, we released the first update to our Media Tracker web site (available here
-Ed). Send all of your readers to the site, type in your ZIP code, and learn what you can learn about the media and telecommunications companies serving your area.BBR
: We've consistently discussed criticism (see story here
, Ed) that states that the FCC releases broadband penetration data that puts a positive spin on the nation's broadband infrastructure in order to bolster incumbent friendly deregulatory policies. In studying the data you're compiling, have you found those claims to be accurate? DC
: This is undoubtedly true. We are, of course, familiar with the many problems associated with measuring broadband penetration based on how many individual zip codes are covered by a given number of providers. The FCC statistic is often used to suggest that an area is served when only one customer within a ZIP code may purchase high-speed access.
But to those critics of using any ZIP code-based data, I reply: one has to start somewhere. The FCC already collects the information about who provides service within a ZIP code. Having the names of those providers publicly available will effectively allow the everyday computer user to "truth-check" the FCC's numbers.BBR
: Both Commissioner Copps and the GAO have admitted the FCC data collection methodology and subsequent analysis needs work. Agree?DC
: I agree that it would be useful to have better statistics about broadband data. Commissioner Copps and others, for example, have suggested collecting data on a ZIP + four level. BBR
: Your thoughts on the FCC's classification of one-way 200kbps as "broadband"?DC
: That classification is very much out of date, but I think the FCC should keep collecting that data a useful benchmark between the future and the present. It should also continue to collect data based on a range of faster speeds of performance. BBR
: On April 26, 2004, President Bush promised to help bring "broadband technology to every corner of our country by the year 2007 with competition shortly thereafter." With a year left, what are your thoughts on this promise?DC
: It's be interesting to see how the Bush administration addresses this. It is important, however, to recognize the distinction between broadband being available, and broadband being subscribed to. On whatever day of whatever year the home in America can get broadband, there will still be households that do not subscribe. BBR
: What can government do to help aid the improvement of the country's broadband infrastructure?DC
: Many things, and I'm certainly not expert enough to know all of them. Two thoughts come to mind, however: allow greater competition in the video marketplace, and make more radio-frequencies available to companies and individuals seeking to offer wireless broadband services. BBR
: While pitching these state-wide franchises (one of which was just passed in California) to the public and lawmakers, incumbents state the elimination of local franchises will result in ample competition and broader deployment of next generation services. Is this an accurate claim?DC
: The research I have seen -- both Bell-funded and non-Bell-funded, such as the Government Accountability Office -- shows that wireline-based competition will lower video prices and spur greater broadband deployment. BBR
: Do you think we'll see a national franchise law passed?DC
: A national franchise looks unlikely to pass as long as "network neutrality"
is hanging in the air. It may be that the Bells begin to take a state-by-state approach. I wrote about this recently in my "Wired in Washington" column (available here