Connected Nation’s Other Shoe Drops On NTIA
Connected Nation’s Other Shoe Drops On NTIA
Connected Nation’s Other Shoe Drops On NTIA

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    It seems like only yesterday that we were saying that a game of chicken was likely to develop between the government and the telecom industry over the data that is supposed to be reported under the stimulus broadband mapping program. Actually, it was the day before yesterday.

    But never mind that, it seems the day after that story was published, a group of telecom executives huddled with Larry Strickling, director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to express their concerns about the data that is supposed to be reported under the stimulus broadband mapping program.

    There should be no surprises here. This was the other shoe waiting to drop. Connected Nation, the front group for the big telecom companies, has made it a practice to sign very restrictive non-disclosure agreements to protect its masters. In fact, confidentiality is one of CN’s selling points, along with its network of telecom lobbyists. CN tells states that it works successfully with carriers because it protects the carriers’ information. That may help the private interest; the public interest, not so much. Now, the companies represented by CN were bringing the message to the government up close and personally.

    The industry doesn’t like the information NTIA wants to collect. The NTIA said it wants to display publicly in a broadband map:

    “(a) Geographic areas in which broadband service is available;
    (b) The technologies used to provide broadband service in such areas;
    (c) The spectrum used for the provision of wireless broadband service in such areas;
    (d) The speeds at which broadband service is available in such areas; and
    (e) Broadband service availability at public schools, libraries, hospitals, colleges and universities and all public buildings owned or leased by agencies or instrumentalities of the states or municipalities or other subdivisions of the states and their respective agencies or instrumentalities.

    “The national map will also be searchable by address. To the greatest extent possible, at every address, the type and speed of broadband service will be provided. For providers of wireless broadband service, the spectrum used for the provision of service will be provided.”

    NTIA also wants data covering average revenue per user and information regarding the “type, technical specification, or location” of infrastructure owned or leased by the company reporting in.

    However, the announcement of the funds availability is also chock full of confidentiality protections, starting with the one that if a broadband provider doesn’t want its identity on the national map, then the map “will simply display an anonymous provider.” The carrier’s “footprint” service area similarly can be displayed without a carrier name, unless the carrier gives its consent. Similarly, the data on type, specification and location will be withheld. From the Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA):

    “Confidential Information. Any information, including trade secrets, or commercial or financial information, submitted under this Program that: 1) identifies the type and technical specification of infrastructure owned, leased, or used by a specific broadband service provider; 2) identifies the average revenue per user (ARPU) for a specific broadband service provider; or 3) explicitly identifies a broadband service provider in relation to its specific Service Area or at a specific Service Location.”

    So there is no public verifiability of the data, the information will be aggregated and can even be anonymous. Sounds somewhat benign, if not terribly useful.

    But not according to the telecom carriers. Prior to meeting with Strickling, the industry drafted up a letter outlining their concerns. According to the text, the protections in the NTIA mapping notice are “are limited at best and ephemeral at worst.”

    One problem is that the NTIA activity could interrupt Connected Nation’s program: “Indeed, many of our member companies have voluntarily participated in the public/private partnership efforts to map broadband availability that are already completed or under way in several states. Unfortunately, as currently conceived, the Broadband Mapping NoFA risks undermining these ongoing efforts.”

    The industry letter complained: “The NoFA proposes to gather granular data that are (i) unrelated to the Congressional goals, (ii) not readily available or maintained in the normal course of business, and (iii) highly sensitive from competition, network security and public safety standpoints. Second, compounding our concerns with the scope of data being sought, the confidentiality commitments in the Broadband Mapping NoFA raise significant questions about whether proprietary, competitively sensitive, and network-security related information will be adequately protected by NTIA and other agencies.”

    According to a Dow Jones news report, the letter wasn’t sent. However, the meeting with Strickling and NTIA Chief of Staff Tom Power was held, with the powers that be from the industry all in attendance.

    The telephone industry was represented by Walter McCormick, US Telecom president and Jon Banks, US Telecom senior vice president, for law and policy represented the largest trade association, including AT&T and Verizon; Curt Stamp, president of the Independent Telephone and Telecommunications Alliance (ITTA), representing mid-sized companies; Brian Ford, regulatory counsel of the Organization for the Protection and Advancement of Small Telephone Companies ( OPATSCO), representing small commercial companies; and Eric Keber, federal government affairs manager of the Western Telecommunications Alliance. Also Mary Albert, assistant general counsel of Comptel, which represents competitor companies.

    The cable industry was also there. Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) attended, accompanied by James Assey, executive vice president, and Steve Morris, associate general counsel.

    From the wireless world, Steve Largent, president of CTIA the grade group representing AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and others, was there. He brought along Chris Guttman-McCabe, CTIA vice president for regulatory affairs and K. Dane Snowden, vice president for external and state affairs. Fred Campbell, president of WCAI, representing wireless broadband providers, also attended.

    It’s not a stretch to assume that even now, industry lobbyists are drafting letters to be signed by influential members of Congress that would descend on the agency as a hail of fire from the heavens if Strickling turns down the industry and sticks to the already industry-friendly NOFA conditions. Coming as well, in yet another deluge, would be ginned-up letters from the telecom ecosystem of bought-off think tanks and business groups.

    It will take a lot to stand firm in the face of that pressure. Here is why the agency should draw a line in the sand. The whole mapping exercise is already on its way to being substantially corrupted as the telecom industry’s creation, which exists to prevent data from being public, is collecting mapping contracts right and left through the efforts of their lobbying and influence. There is absolutely no reason for NTIA to concede on the data collection. NTIA and its supporters in the Administration and in Congress should realize that if agency backs down on this assault from the industry, there will be that much less of value worth saving.

    At the end of the day, somebody is going to be in control of the mapping. It will either be the public, and the public interest, as represented by NTIA, or the industry.