The new stimulus package just signed by President Obama has $350 million in it for broadband mapping, yet even before the bill was signed, the danger warnings for this program are glaringly obvious: Who will control the information on broadband deployment? If the program is done correctly, then the program may bring some benefits to the effort to include all Americans in the digital economy. If not, much of the money will be wasted.
Increasingly, it is beginning to look as if the program will be done at the mercy of the big telecommunications companies, who will seek to submit the information they want to submit, on the terms and conditions on which they want to submit it.
State governments, working months before the stimulus package was conceived, are ramping up their own programs to map deployment of broadband, and are finding they are already increasingly running into conflicts over the type of data they will receive. Some states want comprehensive, granular data. However, they are finding that the telecommunications industry, often represented by Connected Nation (CN), doesn’t want to give it to them. The result is a clash of policy objectives and politics that’s taking place across the country, in states ranging from North Carolina to Alabama, Colorado and Minnesota. Connected Nation’s board of directors is dominated by representatives of large telecom carriers, as CN positions itself as the best choice for states and the Federal government to spend millions of stimulus dollars on broadband mapping.
In North Carolina, the dispute is being played out in a most public way, as Connected Nation, at the behest of a powerful state legislator, has set up a parallel mapping operation to that of the e-NC Authority, a state agency that has been working since 2001 to bring Internet connectivity to rural areas through mapping and through public-private partnerships with telephone companies. While normally Connected Nation can charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for mapping, it is doing the North Carolina map at no cost to the state after a move by the chairman of e-NC's board to have that organization pay for part of the industry mapping cost failed.
As with all of its mapping, e-NC depends on information from incumbent providers. Through last year and this there was a struggle more prolonged than usual, and the end result was a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that greatly restricted what the e-NC maps would be able to show.
Agreement Limits Information Disclosure
In its standard NDA, which AT&T required e-NC to sign, and which is used by Connected Nation across the country, the maps and web sites used to show broadband coverage “may not differentiate between general broadband service types (such as DSL, cable, fixed wireless, BPS and others) and may not, at a pinpoint, address level, identify broadband Providers at a given location.” The agreement also stipulates that any information collected remains the property of AT&T, and can be returned or destroyed at any time.
This clause in the agreement means that the broadband maps produced by Connected Nation or its franchise operations around the country simply show that a company has some service on some street. For consumers or policymakers, there may be no indication of what the technology is, at what speed, or at what price. If the carriers have their way, there never will.
J. Brent Legg, Connected Nation’s vice president of state initiatives, made the point clearly at a Feb. 14 panel for state regulatory staffers. He said that it was a “political decision” to have such a restrictive NDA in North Carolina. (Note: The same restrictive NDA was used in Minnesota, which didn’t have the same political wrangles.) When it was suggested that states have their own resources, including mapping agencies, Legg made it very clear that while states may have some capabilities of their own, if the states wanted access to carriers’ information, they would have to play along with how Connected Nation wanted to do business. CN’s advantage over states doing their own mapping, he said in no uncertain terms, is that it guarantees carrier participation in a mapping program. Of course, it’s participation on their terms.
Legg said, “The question would go to provider cooperation in this process. And unless there is legislation that passes in the individual states that mandates the collection of this information, there is a lot of things that can happen that the provider community might not want to participate. They may not want to provide [the information]. It is not just as easy as the states utilizing the resources they have; there is the other consideration to consider, and that is provider participation in the process.”
He added: “It may be, and I am not saying that this is good or bad, and providers definitely do not definitely want to provide their proprietary information to a state agency, that [carriers] could tie this up in the courts for a while, too. And that is something that would have to play itself out.” Tony Soprano couldn’t have said it better.
The carriers argue that data needs to be withheld so as not to help their competition. In many areas, of course, there is little justification for withholding information, particularly in rural areas because there isn’t any competition. It’s just that one part of the industry doesn’t want potential competitors to see where their services are, just in case.
Other parts of the agreement prohibit e-NC, in this case, from determining whether information submitted by the company is public information. E-NC signed the data agreement last July. AT&T didn’t sign until this January, and then didn’t date it. This was the first time AT&T had required an NDA from the state agency. No other company requires it. Because of the fights over data, e-NC is about to issue its report on 2007 broadband deployment because it didn’t get any information until last fall.
North Carolina Makes Data Dispute Public
In the meantime, a fight over the data broke out in the state legislature. State Rep. Bill Faison (D), the chairman of the House Select Committee on High Speed Internet in Rural Areas, said he wasn’t satisfied with the information reported by e-NC. As a result, so he asked the North Carolina Telecommunications Industry Association – the trade group for the phone companies – to do their own broadband reporting.
Faison said in an interview that he didn’t think the e-NC numbers were accurate because their figures reflected the number of households with broadband, and not the geographical areas. Faison said in an interview that in Orange County, one of the areas he represents, e-NC reports show that 88 percent of the county has high-speed access based on the fact that the Chapel Hill area, which contains the University of North Carolina, has broadband. In fact, he said, 70 percent of the area of the county isn’t supplied with broadband. Two-thirds of the county population is in Chapel Hill and neighboring Carrboro, Faison said. However, Connected Nation also reports by households, so Faison isn’t likely to get the type of data he is seeking.
But legislators on Faison's committee balked at the Connected Nation approach. State Rep. Angela Bryant (D), in particular, who represents two rural counties in the northeastern part of the state, was concerned the state wasn't receiving the best information it could receive from the carriers. Bryant said in an interview she was concerned that the data being provided by the carriers to e-NC as well as to the Connect North Carolina operation, wasn't sufficiently detailed to show gaps in service in her rural area. Bryant is frustrated because the carriers “all want to control the information” by designating more detailed information as proprietary and confidential.
Any errors would be corrected by having people study the maps and get in touch with Connect North Carolina, she said. At one meeting of Faison's committee, Bryant complained that she was “wary of telling constituents without Internet access to go to a Web site to correct the errors,” according to an account of the committee meeting in IndyWeek,
a Raleigh-Durham publication. As a result of Bryant's persistence, new language was inserted into the Broadband Committee's final findings to say that: “”It is imperative that the State develop the precise knowledge of where high speed broadband access is unavailable, at the granular census block level and in a publicly verifiable manner, to ensure that the State has the information necessary to meet federal criteria and to direct federal economic stimulus funding to unserved or underserved rural areas.”
Carrier Data Criticized
For those who work with rural communities, the provider-supplied information simply isn't sufficient, whether it is being used by the providers themselves through Connected Nation, or through the more limited data given to the e-NC Authority. Estelle “Bunny” Sanders, the mayor of Roper, N.C., who also runs Windows on the World e-Community Development Corporation (WOW e-CDC), said the only way to find out where broadband isn't offered is to survey homes to get the granular data necessary.
Her group did one for 21 eastern counties to determine whether a local college should offer distance learning. The findings were startling because the results were much more detailed than the information based on telephone company data. Sanders said most conventional studies overestimate broadband penetration by 10 percent to 15 percent or more, because the information isn't sufficiently detailed, not getting to the block group size necessary to get an accurate picture. (A block group is the smallest size area for which the Census Bureau collects data.) The hardest task is to find the isolated pockets of people without broadband, Sanders said, adding that in her area, “ In our 21 counties, we know exactly where the pockets are. That study is done. We need the other 80 counties in the state.”
Sanders' study found 60 percent to 65 percent of residents of Halifax County had access to broadband. The e-NC survey pegged the number at 81.7 percent. The WOW study found the same 60 percent to 65 percent of residents of Nash County had broadband access, based on telephone surveys and other observations. Based on numbers from the telecom carriers, e-NC pegged Nash County access at 78.5 percent. The WOW study lists by block groups the number of homes with broadband, and the number of homes without access to broadband, a degree of detail not found in other studies based on data reported by the telephone or cable company that can't be verified by outsiders.
For example, she said, there is a telephone company switching station in Roper that is equipped to offer DSL service. Normally, a study would show that the surrounding area has DSL, but her survey found some homes 500 feet from the switch had no DSL, Sanders said. “We don't depend on the carrier. We made calls directly to the consumer.” The state, she said, has overstated broadband penetration because “it has listened to what the carriers told them.” She also holds no brief for Connected Nation, saying “Their propaganda is unbelievable.”
Communities Survey Themselves
Farther west from that survey is Yancey County, North Carolina, where residents are also taking broadband surveys into their own hands. Sherry McCuller, managing director of Peregrine Management Partners in Burnsville, N.C., a firm that supplies engineering, planning and deployment services to rural fiber networks, has a similar situation as Bunny Sanders in the eastern part of the state. “e-NC is in a beggar position,” McCuller said. Based on carrier information, it appears as if Yancey County has 93 percent broadband coverage, a figure that McCuller said “is not right.” To try to figure out what is right, McCuller and others decided to mount a consumer-based effort to find out where broadband was being offered.
The volunteer group, Yanceybroadband.org, published survey forms in local newspapers and is talking with local school districts about sending questionnaires home with students. Even local party precinct chairmen are being urged to get into the act, McCuller said. There are boxes to return surveys at county offices, local gyms, and grocery stores. Their statistics will be more accurate than those collected by Connected Nation, McCuller said. Having that group conduct surveys is “like asking the fox to count the eggs in the henhouse.”
Data reporting is crucial for rural communities, now more than ever because of the possibility of obtaining federal funds for broadband projects. A community that reports higher broadband penetration than it actually has could be left out, McCuller said, “That's why we started doing it ourselves.” Catharine Rice, an associate at Action Audits in Cary, N.C., who worked on broadband issues with Nash County officials in Bryant’s legislative district and advised Bryant, said she is disappointed in the Connected Nation approach to proprietary data, and to an attitude that assumes rural residents are “too poor and too dumb” to appreciate broadband, based on presentations made by Connect officials.
McCuller and Rice each have stories of residents in rural North Carolina who want broadband. Rice said, there is a view among some critics that rural residents don't want broadband. She said, “Nothing could be further from the truth.” Statistics from e-NC show that despite low incomes, parents buy computers for their children, because they understand the importance of education, Rice said. The problem comes when students try to do research or take tests on dialup.
“There's a lot of pent-up demand,” McCuller said, in part because of the poor services provided by the large telephone companies, both in residential service and in back-end network transport. Connected Nation contributes to the problem with its data collections, which is based on “theoretical judgments,” such as that everyone within 1.5 miles of a telephone switching station has DSL, Rice said, and those that don't can't afford it. Connected Nation “is coming in as if its a scientific organization that will do fair and objective surveys,” Rice said, adding that the data, which comes form incumbents, can't be verified and behind which Connected Nation won't even stand because there is a prominent disclaimer of the accuracy of the information on their maps.
Rice's bottom line: 'Connected Nation is undermining the future of rural America. That’s what it’s doing.”