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Let's Be Clear: ISPs Don't Want Accurate Public Broadband Data
They want public data that paints a rosy picture & keeps government at bay...
by Karl Bode 01:08PM Wednesday Feb 11 2009
New York Times tech columnist Saul Hansell, who only a few weeks ago called broadband coverage gaps "hooey," pens a piece today reminding us that $350 million of the broadband stimulus package passed yesterday will go toward mapping broadband coverage. That's incredibly important, since we have absolutely no idea who has broadband. That's in part due to incumbent operators and the FCC, who have collectively fought every effort to get this data into the hands of the public. Carriers repeat their mantra to the Times that releasing the data would only help competitors:
The Internet providers say they are afraid that if they published a map of the services they offered, competitors would know exactly what pitch to send to which customers. Yes, those rivals have other ways to find out where they do business, but none are as easy as downloading a complete list.
The largest broadband carriers already know precisely where, when and for how much their competitors offer service, and to assume otherwise is naive. Most ISPs not only already know where a competitor offers service, they offer their employees bounties for spotting new installations immediately (Comcast employees have told us the cable company has done this with U-Verse). Billion-dollar carriers don't deploy into markets blindly, and while making this data public would certainly be cheaper, the data is available to competitors either way.

Make no mistake: the real reason carriers don't want accurate broadband mapping is because they don't want public data highlighting how little competition they face in many markets. Data highlighting the industry's lack of competition would derail the traditional telecom lobbyist argument that ceaseless industry deregulation is the path to telecom nirvana. Consumers who have just one (or no) carrier(s) in their town were of course already clued in.

If we're going to fix the problem, we need to be clear that lobbying pressure from carriers (along with general dysfunction) is why the FCC has been relying on inaccurate broadband data for the better part of a decade now. The FCC has taken a largely hands-off deregulatory approach to the industry, justifying the position with its own data suggesting everything is looking good. That's despite repeated studies by the GAO (pdf) and others that show that FCC broadband data -- for a lack of a more elegant term -- is utter garbage.

If the federal government is about to spend up to $9 billion on broadband, it needs to know with a high degree of specificity who is providing broadband now, what technologies are being employed and at what speeds.
-Drew Clark, Broadband Census
This isn't to say that government will do a very good job fixing the problem. Given their fondness for industry lobbyist cash, the potential is very real that Uncle Sam could actually make things worse. But if we're going to spend billions fixing the problem -- the very least we can do is to ensure we're making decisions based on sound science. We may have already started out on the wrong foot.

The Times is only the latest to give face time to Connected Nation, a new group that hopes to take State funds in order to map penetration. Unfortunately, Hansell fails to note the controversy surrounding the group; they've been accused (by consumer advocates and small ISPs) of being little more than a policy lobbying vehicle of major incumbents -- tasked with using taxpayer dollars to shine up the nation's broadband problems, while protecting carrier interests.

Connected Nation denies the charges, and their broad bi-partisan and carrier support all but ensures they'll be a primary player in any broadband infrastructure plan (whatever it winds up being). The group recently grew significantly stronger, including companies like Dell, Microsoft and Cisco in their "National Advisory Council to Accelerate Digital Inclusion for All Americans." If you believe Connected Nation, then you should have nothing to worry about. If you believe consumer advocates like Public Knowlege, we might simply be replacing bad data with bad data.

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