- Digital divide still bedevils US broadband access
- "Indicators of Broadband Need" tool part of the solution.
- Multi-layered, granular, zoomable and available to the public
- Coverage data now taken from public and private sources not just over-inflated figures from telcos and ISPs
Part of President Joe Biden's plan to provide much better broadband access to bridge the still excessively deep divide that continues to split the digital-haves from the digital have-nots of the US will rely on a new interactive, public networks mapping tool to more closely identify where service gaps are. The existing mapping model is not fit for purpose.
In the past, the US regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), relied exclusively on mapping data produced and provided by telcos and ISPs. They were marking their own homework and the maps routinely over-estimated broadband penetration numbers and provided a distorted view of the reality of the yawning access gaps that continue to plague both deprived inner city and rural areas across the entire nation. The regulator uses the maps to determine where billions of dollars in broadband subsidies are allocated.
The scourge of the Covid-19 pandemic has made Americans ever more dependent on access to the Internet for all manner of daily necessities and has clearly shown up the glaring and shameful disparities in broadband availability. The new map, the "Indicators of Broadband Need" tool, is the brainchild of the new administration and has been developed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, (NTIA), the arm of the US Department of Commerce responsible for telecoms.
The new tool amalgamates data sets provided by both public and private sources, including the FCC itself, M-Lab (the Internet measurement organisation), Microsoft, Ookla, (Internet speed-test specialist) and the US Census Bureau. The partial and partizan figures supplied by interested parties such as telcos are not entirely discounted but they are no longer the exclusive suppliers of broadband connectivity figures.
The new selection of overlapping data points is much more comprehensive that has been available hitherto and is of such granularity that map users can drill-down and zoom-in to any area of choice to see a precise picture of real broadband availability and determine exactly where new infrastructure and services should be deployed. The detail is such that those areas down to individual homes and businesses at individual street level are identified. The system indicates the precise location of addresses without sufficient bandwidth to gain access to the Internet with a smartphone, laptop or tablet device.
Speed tests and other figures from M-Lab and Ookla indicate that in many parts of the US the access speeds routinely claimed by ISPs and telcos actually fall well below the FCC's not-particularly-ambitious minimum benchmark rate of 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload.
Acting chair of the Board of the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, commented, "To ensure that every household has the Internet access necessary for success in the digital age, we need better ways to accurately measure where high-speed service has reached Americans and where it has not." She added that the new mapping system is "a welcome new tool that provides valuable insight into the state of broadband across the country.`'
Under the old and discredited system telcos and ISPs reported that even when only a single household in a census block had even the most basic broadband connection while the rest of the many households in that self-same census block had no broadband connectivity at all, the entire block was registered on maps as having complete broadband connectivity.
Cable associations among critics of the new approach
Some associations and lobbyists for a swathe of broadband service providers have taken exception to the new maps. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), whilst claiming to support the regulator's attempts to create reliable and accurate broadband maps, posted a comment saying the "NTIA has obscured, rather than clarified, the true state of broadband with this mashup of disparate, and often inaccurate, data sources."
Elsewhere, the broadband association US Telecom paid lip service to the initiative whilst simultaneously denigrating it. It commented, "We’re glad the NTIA is out with this version of a map, but it’s not a substitute for the FCC’s more accurate and granular approach which will identity every home and business in America and whether - or not - it has broadband. The administration itself acknowledged this map is not authoritative - instead suggesting it is meant to let users compare existing coverage estimates. So we should take that at face value."
In response, US Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo, stated, "As we release this important data to the public, it paints a sobering view of the challenges facing far too many Americans as they try to connect to high-speed broadband and participate in our modern economy. In his American Jobs Plan, President Biden has proposed a once-in-a-lifetime investment that would finally connect one hundred percent of the country to reliable and affordable high-speed broadband."
It should be pointed out that the NTIA also makes available a GIS (geographic information system) platform, the "National Broadband Availability Map" (NBAM) for use by states governments and federal partners. Thirty six states currently use the NBAM system which features a considerably more complex set of tools than the new, publicly-accessible "Indicator of Broadband Need" system. It includes the capability for interested partners to upload GIS files and compare the ambition and scope of different proposed projects and make appropriate funding decisions.
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